PFAS Contamination of Water

Exposure to PFAS

What are PFAS?

Perfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are very stable manmade chemicals that have properties that allow them to repel both water and oil. The different PFAS have different lengths and/or differ in their properties at one end, which can change the toxicity of the chemicals. The most commonly found and best studied PFAS are perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS).

Where are they found?

The fat and water repelling properties of these substances allowed them to be applied to almost any material to make it water, oil, and stain repellant. These properties were first used commercially in the 1950s, and they are used in a wide variety of consumer products, including carpets, clothing, non-stick pans, paints, polishes, waxes, cleaning products, and food packaging. Firefighters and the military use them in fire-suppressing foam.

PFAS do not readily breakdown in the environment and are water soluble. As a result, there are very low levels of PFAS in many areas of the environment. Higher levels can be found in water supplies near facilities that manufactured, disposed, or used PFAS. more

How can I be exposed to PFAS?

Exposure to PFAS could occur through:

  • public water systems and drinking water wells, soil, and outdoor air near industrial areas with frequent PFAS manufacture, disposal, or use
  • indoor air or dust in spaces that contain carpets, textiles, and other consumer products treated with PFAS to resist stains
  • surface water (lakes, ponds, etc.) or groundwater receiving run-off or seepage from areas where firefighting foam was often used (like military or civilian airfields)
  • fish from contaminated bodies of water
  • food items sold in the marketplace
  • food packaging

How do unborn babies and young children get exposed to PFAS?

Unborn babies can be exposed to PFAS through umbilical cord blood from their mothers during pregnancy.

Newborns can be exposed to PFAS through breast milk or through formula made with water that contains PFAS. Older children may be exposed to PFAS through food, water, and other products, similar to adults. Young children have a higher risk of exposure to PFAS from carpet and cleaning products, largely due to time spent lying and crawling on floors in their early years.

What are exposure limits for PFAS in drinking water?

The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) have each estimated levels of total human exposure to PFOS and PFOA that they believe will not lead to toxicity. The draft ATSDR estimate is lower than the EPA number because they made different decisions on how to predict human toxicity from animal studies, but both include significant safety margins to account for uncertainty. EPA has issued guidance to state and local governments and public water providers about levels of PFOA and PFOS in drinking water and groundwater that are potentially concerning. The State of Rhode Island requires water providers to keep the concentration of these compounds below that level.

What steps should I take if concerning levels of PFAS have been detected in my drinking water?

The Rhode Island Department of Health recommends taking the following steps to minimize risk:

  • DO NOT boil your water. Boiling water will concentrate these chemicals.
  • Reduce your risk of exposure to these chemicals by using bottled water or other licensed drinking water that has been tested for these chemicals or that uses a treatment that removes these chemicals (specifically activated carbon or reverse osmosis). Many major bottled water brands use this treatment.
  • Water from a safe source should be used for drinking, food preparation, cooking, brushing teeth, and any activity that might result in swallowing water.
  • Parents of formula-fed infants may consider using a formula that does not require adding water.

Is it OK to shower, bathe, or swim?

Routine showering, bathing, or swimming are not a major source of exposure to PFAS. As a precaution, you may consider shorter showers or baths, especially for children who may swallow water while playing in the bath, or for people with skin conditions (rashes, cuts, etc.).

Can I do laundry and wash my dishes?

Doing laundry or washing dishes are also not a major source of exposure to PFAS. If washing dishes by hand, you can minimize exposure by wearing rubber gloves, especially if you have a rash, cuts, or abrasions on your hands.

Is it safe to use a humidifier?

If you must use a humidifier, only use water from a safe source.

Health Concerns

Is it common for people to have PFAS in their blood?

Studies show that human exposure to PFAS is widespread and most people in the United States and in other industrialized countries have measurable amounts of PFAS in their blood. In fact, it is unlikely that anyone, even if they did not drink contaminated water, will have a level of “zero” PFAS in their blood. US manufacturers of PFAS-related products phased out production of PFOS by 2002 and PFOA by 2013, although US production of shorter chain PFAS continues. Based on Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) data, levels of PFOA and PFOS have been decreasing in the blood of the general population since they were phased out. However, these compounds remain in the human body for years after exposure and in the environment for longer, so it will be a long time before they disappear from blood.

What are possible health concerns with PFAS?

If people ingest PFAS (by eating or drinking food or water that contain PFAS), the PFAS are absorbed, and can accumulate in the body. PFAS can be found in blood, and at much lower levels in urine, breast milk and in umbilical cord blood. PFAS stay in the human body for long periods of time. As a result, as people get exposed to PFAS from different sources over time, the level of PFAS in their bodies may lead to adverse health effects. The likelihood of adverse health effects depends on several factors such as the amount and concentration of PFAS ingested as well as the time span of exposure.

Scientists are still learning about the health effects of exposures to PFAS. The biggest concerns are for women who are pregnant or likely to become pregnant and children. We cannot accurately predict what health effects individuals may experience if they are exposed to PFAS. Studies on laboratory animals, supported by some evidence from studies of humans indicate that exposure to specific PFAS over certain levels could result in adverse health effects. Although more research is needed, some studies have shown that long chain PFAS like PFOA and PFOS may:

  • cause developmental effects in infants
  • lower a woman’s chance of getting pregnant
  • increase a woman’s blood pressure during pregnancy
  • lower infant birth weights
  • interfere with the body’s natural hormones
  • increase cholesterol levels
  • affect the immune system
  • increase the risk of cancer

The toxicity of shorter PFAS is currently not well understood, although they remain in the blood for shorter periods of time.

Can my animals be affected by contaminated water?

The health effects on animals are similar to the effects on people. If you have high levels of PFAS in your water, your pets or livestock should not drink the water.

What should I do if I’m worried about health effects related to PFAS?

If you suspect exposure to higher levels of PFAS and you or your family members have signs or symptoms that you think could be related to that exposure, you should talk to your family's healthcare provider.

Prenatal care is important for all pregnancies. If you are pregnant and you think you have been exposed to PFAS, tell your obstetrician, as it may be important to monitor your blood pressure.

Is it safe to breastfeed my baby?

Breastfeeding is associated with numerous health benefits for infants and mothers. The science on the health effects of PFAS for mothers and babies is evolving. However, given the scientific understanding at this time, the benefits of breastfeeding your baby outweighs those of not breastfeeding. If you have any concerns about breastfeeding, you should talk to your healthcare provider.

Environmental Concerns

If high levels of PFAS were detected in my water, how will it affect fruits and vegetables in my garden?

Studies have shown that gardens watered with PFAS-contaminated water will have higher levels of PFAS in the soil. Some types of PFAS are absorbed into plants, but can be flushed out of soil with clean water. Others, including PFOA and PFOS, stay stuck to soil longer, but aren’t easily absorbed by plants and can be washed off after harvest.

There are a few things you can do to further reduce potential exposure:

  • Water your garden and seedlings with a clean source of water.
  • Modify your soil with clean compost. Increasing the organic content of your garden soil can prevent the uptake of PFAS into plants. If you have compost from last year’s gardening, use that in other areas of your yard.
  • Wash your produce in clean water after you harvest it. For root vegetables, consider peeling and washing them before eating.