Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are a group of man-made chemicals that have been widely used in industrial and consumer products for decades. Unfortunately, these chemicals are also known to be harmful to human health, and exposure to them can lead to serious health problems. One significant way in which people can be exposed to PFAS is through contaminated drinking water.
In this article, we will explore how PFAS-contaminated drinking water affects human health, including the potential health risks and the steps that can be taken to mitigate exposure to these harmful chemicals.
What are PFASs?
PFASs are a family of chemicals that have been used in a variety of products, including nonstick cookware, firefighting foams, and food packaging. They’re also used in some industrial processes like metal plating and leather tanning.
PFASs are not easily broken down in the environment and can persist for a long time after they’ve been released into it. As a result, PFASs have been detected in drinking water supplies all over the country, and even worldwide, at levels above what EPA considers safe for human health (although there’s debate about what those levels should be).
Route of Exposure
There are four main routes of exposure: ingestion, passive inhalation, skin contact, and injection.
Ingestion is the most common route of exposure to PFASs in drinking water. It’s important to note that drinking contaminated water does not mean you will automatically become ill or suffer health effects from PFAS. However, it does increase your risk of developing an illness or condition associated with PFASs.
The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences states in its report that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention detected PFAS in the blood of 97% of Americans. Another National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) report indicated that blood levels of perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) in individuals have decreased since these chemicals were removed from consumer products in the early 2000s.
Nevertheless, despite the reduction, new PFAS compounds have been created, and it’s difficult to access exposure to them.
Where Do PFASs Come From?
PFASs are found in many household products, including nonstick cookware, stain-resistant fabrics, and carpeting, water-repellent clothing. They’re also used in firefighting foam.
PFASs have been detected in drinking water supplies around the world. In the U.S., they’ve been found at military bases where they were used to fight fires or clean equipment.
They’ve also been detected in public drinking water systems near industrial sites that used them as a manufacturing rinse aid or degreaser on types of machinery like aircraft engines or car parts (that means you may be exposed to them even if you don’t live near an active military base).
How Are They Detected and Regulated?
With the public health concerns surrounding PFAS, the World Health Organization (WHO) has taken steps to develop a background document for the Guidelines for Drinking-Water Quality (GDWQ) focusing on PFAS, specifically perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA).
As part of this process, a draft background document was made available for public consultation between September 29 and November 11, 2022. The purpose of the guideline value is to indicate the maximum allowable concentration of a substance that does not pose significant health risks over a person’s lifetime of consumption.
The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates the use of certain PFASs in food packaging materials and other consumer products used by infants and young children.
PFASs are also regulated under federal laws such as the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), which requires companies manufacturing or importing certain chemicals into the United States to provide information on their possible health effects before introducing them into commerce.
Individuals who are at a high risk of being negatively impacted by PFAS exposure include:
- Pregnant women and breastfeeding mothers. PFAS chemicals can pass through the placenta to an unborn child, potentially affecting the development of their immune systems.
- Infants and children. Children are more likely than adults to be exposed to PFAS chemicals in drinking water because they drink more per pound of body weight and they have a higher rate of metabolism than adults.
- Older adults (65 years old or older). Older people also have less efficient kidneys, which may make it harder for them to remove PFAS from their bodies than younger people do. This means that older individuals are at greater risk for health problems related directly or indirectly to exposure to these chemicals in drinking water supplies.
PFAS Exposure at Camp Lejeune
The most significant case of PFAS exposure in the U.S. was seen at Camp Lejeune, which affected thousands of people. Between the 1950s and 1980s, the drinking water at the Marine Corps base in North Carolina was contaminated with toxic chemicals, including PFAS. The contamination was linked to a range of health problems, including certain types of cancer, neurological disorders, and birth defects.
Symptoms of Camp Lejeune water contamination include various cancers, such as leukemia and lymphoma, as well as developmental issues, such as low birth weight, birth defects, and developmental delays. Other symptoms can include liver damage, thyroid disorders, and immune system dysfunction.
One of the leading law firms representing the Camp Lejeune lawsuit, TorHoerman Law, LLC, states that somewhere close to 1 million people may have been exposed to water contamination at Camp Lejeune, and it will take decades to understand the full effect of the exposure.
Testing For PFASs
Testing for PFASs is the first step to finding out if you have been exposed to these chemicals.
If homeowners are considering testing their drinking water for PFAS, the EPA recommends that they contact their state to inquire about state-certified laboratories that can perform PFAS testing. Furthermore, when testing drinking water for PFAS, the EPA suggests using a testing method that has been validated by the agency.
We’ve seen how PFAS-contaminated drinking water affects human health. PFAS chemicals are found in many products we use every day, and they may cause health problems like cancer and liver damage. We need to understand the risks of these chemicals so we can take action against them.