What are PFAs?
What are PFAs?
Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, otherwise known as PFAS, increasingly gain headlines because more studies continually show their negative health impact. But what are PFAS, how do they impact our health and why do we need to learn about them?
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) notes that PFAS are “man-made chemicals that includes PFOA, PFOS, GenX, and many other chemicals.”
Additionally, there are many types of PFAS chemicals. However, the most studied PFAS chemicals include:
- PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid)
- PFOS (perfluorooctanesulfonic acid)
- PFHxS (perfluorohexane sulfonic acid)
- PFNA (perfluorononanoic acid)
In addition to the EPA, the Center for Disease Control (CDC), the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) and the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) continue researching the impact of PFAS and generating awareness about these chemicals.
For example, the ATSDR notes1 that although the scientific community currently lacks definitive studies that directly link PFAS chemicals to specific health conditions, studies do show PFAS exposure in the environment are likely linked to harmful health effects in humans (and animals). Finally, it is important to remain aware of the existing PFAS studies because we are learning more as a community every day.
“New kinds of PFAS are being developed. Some of these may have properties similar to the existing PFAS, and some may be less persistent in the environment. There are very few scientific studies on new PFAS, so more research is necessary to discover whether they may be a health concern.”
What are the Origins of PFAS?
The existence of PFAS dates back to the 1940s. During this time period, manufacturers started utilizing these man-made chemicals in numerous consumer products, processing facilities, airports and within military installations. PFAS gained rapid adoption in the manufacturing world because the chemicals provided unique qualities that were resistant to petroleum, heat and water.
PFAS offered a variety of benefits during the many different manufacturing processes. For example, the following consumer products quickly incorporated PFAS:
- Food Packaging
- Stain Repellent Fabric
- Water Repellent Fabric
- Cleaning Products
Additionally, part of the PFAS chemical group includes GenX, which is a trade name for a specific technology utilized to make non-stick coatings. The EPA2 describes the chemical composition of GenX.
“GenX is a trade name for a technology that is used to make high performance fluoropolymers (e.g., some nonstick coatings) without the use of perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA). HFPO dimer acid and its ammonium salt are the major chemicals associated with the GenX technology.”
Finally, due to the proliferation of PFAS and recent studies showing their negative health impact, these organizations continue study of PFAS exposure. Fortunately, based on these scientific advancements, researchers developed methods to detect and quantify PFAS exposure, as well as offer additional information about potential health risks3 based on exposure levels.
What are the Health Effects of PFAS?
Chemicals are not inherently bad. However, certain chemicals that gain mass adoption without an understanding of their impact on human health and the environment are a cause for concern. PFAS looks like one of those chemicals and we are now learning about their impact.
First, PFAS are found everywhere. Due to their adoption within the manufacturing process of numerous industries, PFAS are not only in many common household products, but also the environment. In particular, PFAS entered the water and soil systems. As a result and according to the CDC4, PFAS exposure potentially occurs in humans and animals via:
- Drinking contaminated municipal water.
- Drinking contaminated private well water.
- Consuming fish caught from contaminated water.
- Consuming food grown in contaminated soil
- Eating food packaged in PFAS.
- Eating food that was processed with equipment that contained PFAS.
- Using consumer products that contain PFAS.
Next, one of the most important things researchers learned about PFAS is they accumulate over time. Yes, PFAS do not break down in the body, so as people and animals gain exposure, the more chemicals remain in their body.
As a result, some of the negative health effects researchers observed in people with PFAS exposure include:
- Increased cholesterol levels
- Reproductive and/or developmental issues (including low infant birth weights)
- Liver and kidney problems
- Lowered immune system
- Thyroid hormone disruption (exposure to PFOS)
- Cancer (exposure to PFOA)
Finally, as the EPA, CDC and others track and evaluation PFAS exposure, the EPA continues to provide updates on the long-term dangers. For example, the EPA established lifetime exposure guidelines from drinking water to 70 parts per trillion. However, more needs to be done!
In Michigan, which experienced significant clean water issues, conducted a recent study that suggests lifetime PFAS exposure from drinking water should be as low as 17 parts per trillion.
How do We Deal with PFAS?
If you are worried about the PFAS exposure in your community, then the CDC offers additional information for local assessments. In particular, these assessments focus on communities near current (or former military bases).
“The 2018 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) authorized CDC/ATSDR to look at PFAS exposure in communities near current or former military bases and that are known to have had PFAS in their drinking water…The primary goal of these exposure assessments is to provide information to communities about levels of PFAS in their bodies. This information might be used to help inform future studies evaluating the impact of PFAS exposure on human health.”
Additionally, residents that rely on municipal water should contact the water company and ask about PFAS testing. Generally, removing PFAS before the chemicals potentially enter the main water supply offers the best opportunity of preventing negative health benefits.
However, homeowners that rely on well water should review their local environment. Based on the available information from the EPA and CDC, communities that are near or around waste land or manufacturing facilities likely contain more PFAS in the ground and water.
In Connecticut, our team at Aqua Pump works with approved labs to test local water (as not every water testing lab has the capacity to test for PFAS). For example, of the roughly 4,500 known PFAS chemicals, only 14 of the compounds have established methods for testing. Fortunately, through water testing, homeowners and municipal officials can understand if their community remains at risk of potentially excessive PFAS exposure.
Finally, studies generally discovered that water filtration systems work to remove PFAS from private water wells and public water supplies. Typically, these studies showed that an activated carbon and/or resin filtration system works well in removing these known PFAS chemicals. For more information on learning about possible PFAs contamination of your home water supply, contact Aqua Pump today!
- Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry available at https://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/pfas/overview.html
- Environmental Protection Agency available at https://www.epa.gov/pfas/pfas-explained
- Environmental Protection Agency available at https://www.epa.gov/chemical-research/working-list-pfas-chemicals-research-interest-and-ongoing-work-epa
- Agency for Toxic Substance and Disease Registry available at https://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/pfas/pfas-exposure.html