PFAS FAQs: Frequently asked questions about perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS)

WHAT IS PFAS?

PFAS is an acronym which stands for perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances. PFAS are a group of synthetic chemicals that have been around for several decades, and have thousands of industrial and commercial applications. PFAS is the umbrella name under which nearly 5,000 different compounds fall. Other terms associated with PFAS include PFOA, PFOS, C8, PFBS, perfluorononanoic acid (PFNA), hexafluoropropylene oxide, (HFPO) dimer acid and its ammonium salt (referred to as GenX chemicals). The PFAS chemical bond is extremely strong and stable, and it was discovered that these compounds are excellent at repelling heat, water and grease. Since the 1940's, scientists and engineers have invented thousands of products and practical applications for PFAS, including GoreTex™ apparel, Teflon™ non-stick cookware, Scotchgard™ fabrics, firefighting foam, health and beauty products, and food packaging. Because their use is so widespread, and because these chemicals don't readily break down, PFAS compounds are accumulating in the environment. According to the Center for Disease Control, almost every American likely has detectable levels of PFAS in their bloodstream.

 

WHAT IS PFAS EXPOSURE?

Since PFAS are found in so many consumer and industrial products, have been in prevalent use for so long, and do not readily break down in the environment, experts have discovered that detectable and sometimes concerning levels of PFAS can be found in the air, soil, and water. According to the EPA, due to their widespread use and persistence in the environment, most people in the United States have been exposed to PFAS. Initial studies have indicated that at certain levels, PFAS exposure can cause health problems in humans. More studies are underway to determine the levels at which we are seeing a correlation between PFAS and health issues.?

 

WHERE IS PFAS FOUND?

Geographically and environmentally, detectable levels of PFAS have been found in the air, soil and water in most US states, and locations all over the world. Manufacturing and processing facilities, airports, and military installations are the greatest potential contributors of PFAS in the environment. Folks who live in close proximity to these types of sites are encouraged to have their drinking water tested for PFAS. The average American consumer can be exposed to low levels of PFAS by using any number of everyday consumable products including (some types of) flame retardant clothing, dental floss, sunscreens, bug spray, cookware, food packaging, take-out containers, household cleaning products, microwave popcorn, and more.

 

HOW AM I EXPOSED TO PFAS?

Because PFAS are found in so many products and have been in use since the 1940s, PFAS containing materials can be found in most households and businesses in the US. Exposure to PFAS is not uncommon at this point, but eposure levels vary. You can become exposed to PFAS by: 

  • drinking water that contains PFAS
  • consuming food that contains PFAS
  • using products that contain PFAS
  • consuming food with PFAS containing packaging (grease resistant wrappers, microwaveable bags, etc.)
  • exposure to some stain and water repellent textiles (including carpet, clothing and footwear)
  • using nonstick cookware
  • using PFAS containing polishes, waxes, paints, and cleaning products, beauty products, etc.
  • living in close proximity to a facility or military base that has used firefighting foam (aqueous film-forming foam, or AFFF)
  • living in close proximity to a facility that manufactures PFAS or products containing PFAS.

 

IS PFAS EXPOSURE DANGEROUS?

Studies are ongoing to determine the effect of PFAS on human health. Initial studies by the CDC have shown that animals exposed to PFAS at high levels affected functions of the liver, thyroid, pancreas and hormone levels. Some studies in humans have shown that certain PFAS may affect growth, learning, and behavior in children, lower a woman’s chance of getting pregnant, may negatively affect hormones, cholesterol levels, the immune system, and may increase the risk of cancer. From 2005 through 2013, studies were conducted by the C8 Science Panel (http://www.c8sciencepanel.org/) which concluded that there was a probable link between C8 exposure and the following:

  • diagnosed high cholesterol
  • ulcerative colitis
  • thyroid disease
  • testicular cancer
  • kidney cancer
  • pregnancy-induced hypertension

Further studies are needed to determine which PFAS compounds and what levels result in various health impacts in humans.

 

CAN PFAS CAUSE CANCER?

Studies are underway around the world to determine the full effect of PFAS on human health. Initial studies by the US Centers for Disease Control (CDC) have shown that exposure to PFAS “may increase the risk of cancer,” and the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC, a division of the World Health Organization) has designated PFOA as “a possible carcinogen,” due to epidemiological evidence linking exposure to kidney and testicular cancer. From 2005 through 2013, studies were conducted by the C8 Science Panel (http://www.c8sciencepanel.org/) which concluded that there was a probable link between PFOA exposure and the following: diagnosed high cholesterol, ulcerative colitis, thyroid disease, testicular cancer, kidney cancer, and pregnancy-induced hypertension. Further studies are needed to determine which PFAS compounds and what levels result in various health impacts in humans.


SHOULD I TEST FOR PFAS? 

If you live in close proximity to manufacturing or processing facilities, an airport, or military installation, you are encouraged to have your drinking water tested for PFAS. If you maintain a garden or crops and live near one of these facilities, you may also want to have your soil tested for PFAS. If you have been reading about PFAS and/or contaminated water in your local newspaper, you are encouraged to have your water tested. Not everyone needs to test for PFAS. Contact your town or state health department for their recommendations on water testing guidelines in your area, since PFAS is only one of several odorless, colorless, tasteless compounds that could be contaminating your drinking water. 

 

HOW DO I TEST FOR PFAS?

If you live within proximity of our lab in Portsmouth, NH, stop in for your specialized PFAS testing kit and instructions. If you are located outside of ARA's service area, be advised that there are only a handful of laboratories in North America that have the certifications and equipment necessary to run the current EPA approved PFAS testing methods. Most town or state health department websites will provide a list of certified laboratories in your area that can provide the bottles and instructions for PFAS testing. Once you find a laboratory and obtain the proper bottles, just follow the instructions provided and return the samples promptly to your lab for analysis. Results can take anywhere from a few days to a few weeks or a month, depending on your location and the lab’s backlog. NOTE: ARA will be certified to provide PFAS testing in-house in early 2020. Stay tuned. 

 

HOW MUCH DOES IT COST TO TEST FOR PFAS?

The cost of PFAS testing will vary from lab to lab. There are thousands of different PFAS compounds, and therefore many different PFAS "Testing Packages" (ie, 3 compounds, 19 compounds, 26 compounds etc.) Most labs will fall in the range of $250 to $550 per sample, which provides analysis of several of the most common PFAS compounds.

 

HOW DO I REMOVE PFAS?

The same chemical properties that make PFAS so effective, also make them very difficult remediate. Research is being conducted all over the world to find practical solutions to remove PFAS from the environment. The most promising PFAS remediation technologies currently include: 

  • activated carbon adsorption
  • ion exchange resins
  • high-pressure membranes

Drinking water treatment facilities, hospitals, large buildings, and homes can all benefit from these treatment options. Costs vary depending on the size and type of PFAS remediation system. It is recommended that you start by researching the companies that claim to provide PFAS remediation in your geographial location, and ask your local health department for information on PFAS removal. 

 

HOW DO I PREVENT PFAS EXPOSURE & CONTAMINATION?

Since the discovery of PFAS contamination in the environment, the possible health effects, and the subsequent lawsuits, the use of PFAS in manufacturing in the United States has decreased significantly. However, there are no current Federal Laws regarding PFAS use and limits, only recommendations and advisories. (For a list of PFAS-related regulations from the EPA, visit: https://www.epa.gov/pfas/pfas-laws-and-regulations).

 

Detectable levels of PFAS have been found in the air, soil and water in most US states, and we know that PFAS compounds do not readily break down. Eco-friendly alternatives are being researched and developed, but in the meantime, thousands of PFAS-containing products are still being created, used and thrown away on a daily basis, and groundwater contamination is rampant. Since it is already so widespread, preventing PFAS contamination is not likely, but further contamination can be minimized by stopping the manufacture and use of PFAS containing materials and having your water tested regularly. 

 

EPA's PFAS Action Guide: https://www.epa.gov/sites/production/files/2019-02/documents/pfas_action_plan_021319_508compliant_1.pdf

 

Concerned citizens can stay informed by reading news articles related to the topic, stay on top of PFAS related updates from the EPA, CDC, and local health advisories, and avoid known products, consumables, and areas known to contain high levels of PFAS. If you are in an area known for PFAS contamination, have your drinking water tested regularly.

 

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