Education

PFAS: The ‘Forever Chemicals’ in Your Tap Water

Have you ever wondered what exactly you’re drinking when you turn on the tap? Most of us trust our tap water to be safe. However, there’s a growing concern about a class of man-made chemicals called per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS. Earning the nickname “forever chemicals,” these compounds are incredibly persistent in the environment and can accumulate in our bodies over time.

This article will discuss PFAS, exploring how these chemicals end up in our tap water and the potential health risks they pose. 

What Are PFAS?

According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), PFAS are a vast group of man-made chemicals, with a number estimated in the thousands. Emerging in the 1950s, they have become integrated into countless consumer products we rely on daily. 

The compound’s unique property lies in the carbon-fluorine bond, one of the strongest chemical bonds known. This strength translates to exceptional water, stain, and heat resistance.

However, this very strength presents a challenge. PFAS molecules with their robust carbon-fluorine backbone are incredibly resistant to degradation. Their persistence in the environment is for a long time. This allows them to accumulate in our bodies, raising concerns about potential health effects.

The widespread use of these chemicals can be found in everyday items. From the non-stick coating on your favorite pan to the stain-resistant finish on your carpet, PFAS plays a role. They even make firefighting foams more effective. While their applications offer undeniable benefits, the long-term consequences of their widespread use are still being evaluated.

How Does PFAS Get into Our Tap Water?

Industrial facilities are a major culprit, as they may discharge wastewater containing these chemicals directly into waterways or treatment plants. Additionally, landfills can leak these contaminants through a process called leachate, further polluting nearby water sources.

Even facilities dedicated to cleaning our water can be unwitting contributors. Wastewater treatment plants, while effective at removing many contaminants, may not be fully equipped to handle PFAS. This allows some of these compounds to escape in the treated effluent, ultimately ending up in our tap water.

Another concerning source is the use of biosolids, a treated sewage sludge, as fertilizer. While biosolids offer valuable nutrients for plants, they can also contain PFAS from household products flushed down the drain. When applied to land, these chemicals can leach into the soil and eventually contaminate groundwater sources.

Finally, firefighting foams used at airports and industrial facilities can be a significant source of contamination. These foams, while effective at extinguishing fires, often contain PFAS chemicals. During firefighting operations or training exercises, these foams can seep into the soil and migrate toward groundwater sources.

AFFF- A Major Source of Contamination

Aqueous film-forming foam (AFFF), a hero in battling fuel fires, has become a villain when it comes to clean drinking water. The reason? AFFF often contains PFAS chemicals. 

TorHoerman Law notes that PFAS in AFFF can leach into the soil and groundwater when the foam is used or disposed of. This leaching has become a major source of contamination in drinking water supplies near areas where firefighting foam has been historically used. 

A stark example of this contamination comes from the U.S. Navy’s Red Hill facility in Hawaii. In November 2022, a leak of 1,300 gallons of AFFF concentrate into the soil served as a reminder of the ongoing risks. 

According to The Maritime Executive, this incident added to a series of spills at the facility. These spills have led to severe groundwater contamination concerns, prompting the facility’s planned decommissioning. The firefighting foam release drew strong condemnation from Hawaii’s political leaders, who successfully pressured the Pentagon to close the site. 

Beyond environmental damage, the issue of the contamination has sparked legal battles with lawsuits being filed against the manufacturers of AFFF. The allegations state they were aware of the health risks associated with ‘forever chemicals’ but failed to warn the public.  The firefighter foam lawsuit aims to hold manufacturers accountable and secure funding for comprehensive clean-up operations.

A key aspect of these clean-up efforts is the installation of advanced water filtration systems specifically designed to remove PFAS from contaminated water supplies. While a costly endeavor, it’s a necessary measure to mitigate public health risks and ensure safe drinking water for millions of Americans. 

What Are the Health Risks of PFAS Exposure?

Studies have linked exposure to these compounds to a concerning array of health problems.

One major concern is the potential increased risk of certain cancers. Research suggests a link between PFAS exposure and cancers like prostate, kidney, and testicular cancers. These chemicals may also disrupt the immune system, making our bodies less effective at fighting off infections and diseases.

The thyroid gland, responsible for regulating metabolism and growth, can also be impacted by the contamination. Studies suggest potential disruptions to thyroid hormone production, which can lead to a variety of health issues. Liver damage is another potential consequence, with PFAS exposure linked to abnormal liver function tests.

Perhaps most concerning are the potential developmental problems associated with exposure to these chemicals in children. Prenatal exposure may lead to birth defects, while exposure in early childhood can affect growth and development.

How Can I Find Out if My Tap Water Contains PFAS?

The first step is to gather information about potential PFAS sources in your area. According to The Conversation, this could involve checking for nearby industrial facilities known to use these chemicals. Additionally, you can identify potential sources of contamination in your drinking water supply.

Unfortunately, the absence of readily available information doesn’t necessarily guarantee a clean bill of health. Monitoring and reporting practices can vary depending on location and the specific source of contamination.

Here’s where proactive steps come in. Several resources can be helpful in investigating potential PFAS risks. The websites of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) offer valuable information about the contamination. 

Additionally, contacting your state or local public health department can provide specific details about your area’s water supply and potential PFAS testing initiatives.

If you’re concerned about potential exposure due to your location or suspect you’ve consumed contaminated water, consult your healthcare provider. They can provide information on monitoring, clinical implications, and testing options.

Frequently Asked Questions

What foods are high in PFAS?

Foods high in PFAS include seafood such as clams, cod,  shrimp, crab, pollock, salmon, tilapia, and tuna. According to the FDA’s 2022 targeted seafood survey, these chemicals were detected in 74% (60 out of 81) of samples from these sources.

How to remove PFAS from the body?

To remove these compounds from the body, consider probiotics. Certain Lactobacillus strains, according to studies, can bind to PFAS and aid in detoxification. Alongside maintaining a balanced diet and staying hydrated, incorporating probiotics may assist in the removal of these harmful chemicals from the body.

Are PFAS present in bottled water?

Yes, PFAS are found in bottled water. A 2021 study detected these compounds in 39 out of 101 bottled water products. Their levels ranged from nearly zero to almost 19 parts per trillion.

In conclusion, PFAS, the “forever chemicals,” lurk in our tap water posing a silent threat with potential health consequences. Although science is still evolving, the evidence regarding the dangers of their exposure is concerning.

By using water filters, limiting contaminated fish intake, and choosing PFAS-free products, we can minimize our exposure. However, the fight for clean water doesn’t end there. Staying informed, advocating for stricter regulations, and holding manufacturers accountable are all crucial steps. 

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