Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are manmade compounds used in the manufacture of stain, oil and water-resistant consumer products. They are also found in products such as firefighting foams, cleaners, cosmetics, paints, adhesives and insecticides. PFAS are persistent in the environment, because natural processes do not rapidly degrade them.

In 2006, EPA and eight major companies launched the 2010/15 PFOA Stewardship Program. As part of this program, those companies committed to reduce emissions and product content of PFAS by 95 percent by 2010, and to work toward eliminating emissions and product content by 2015. In January 2015, EPA released the most recent reports, for the program’s phase-out goals. These results show that the companies are on track to reach the program’s goal of phasing out these chemicals by the end of 2015. However, this only represents a portion of the use of these PFAS in manufacturing and their use continues in various applications.

According to AWWA's PFAS expert Chris Moody, when speaking on The Water Values Podcast, PFAS can be found in many common, everyday items; items we may not even think would contain these chemicals. Some uses of PFAS include insecticides, carpet treatments and firefighting foams which can contribute to additional exposures. PFAS are also used as part of manufacturing processes, such as metal-plating. PFAS have been found to be present in manufacturing waste streams and can reach sources of drinking water. They may also be present in dust and accumulate in fish and other animals that we consume.

Aqueous film-forming foams (AFFFs)
AFFFs have been used at military bases, airports, and firefighting training sites to suppress flammable liquid fires, and several PFAS compounds have been ingredients in these products. Uncontained AFFF runoff has migrated through soil to contaminate nearby aquifers and surface waters at a number of sites in the United States.

Facilities that produced PFAS products or used PFAS in manufacturing processes have released the chemicals through wastewaters, solid waste, and air emissions.

Landfill disposal
At several historic landfill sites, PFAS-contaminated waste has contributed to PFAS levels in leachate—liquid that has passed through waste disposed in an active landfill and accumulates dissolved and suspended matter from it—that subsequently contaminated natural waters. Today, untreated landfill leachate may pose a contamination risk.

Environmental risks depend on the concentration of the PFAS contaminant and on exposure conditions. Individuals exposed to high levels of PFAS in the air and/or water have been found to suffer negative health effects. If ingested above certain levels, various PFAS can cause problems in the liver, kidneys and nervous system and may also create developmental and reproductive issues.

PFAS were included in EPA’s Third Unregulated Contaminant Monitoring Rule and testing in order to determine how prevalent these compounds are in U.S. drinking water supplies and at what level they appear. Following that testing, in May 2016, EPA released health advisories for perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS), establishing a lifetime health advisory for each compound, or a sum total of the two, of 0.07 parts per billion.

PFAS will also be included in the Fifth Unregulated Contaminant Monitoring Rule (UCMR 5). In UCMR 5, EPA will include 29 PFAS using EPA Methods 533 and 537.1. Monitoring under UCMR 5 will capture all PFAS that are presently detectable using EPA methods for PFAS in drinking water.

Under UCMR 3 testing, many water systems nationwide tested for PFAS. Many states have also required additional monitoring of PFAS in drinking water since UCMR 3. In some cases, testing has covered a wider array of PFAS compounds. Contact your public water system to learn more about PFAS testing and results. You can usually find contact information for your public water system on your water bill.
To date, there are three widely applied technologies for PFAS reduction once water is contaminated. Each has advantages and limitations. All three generate waste streams that themselves must be managed. All require significant increases in capital and operating expenses. They include:
  • Activated carbon, in which contaminants are adsorbed by the activated carbon media. The media needs to be replaced periodically to maintain removal performance.
  • Anion exchange, typically called ion exchange. The ion exchange process removes contaminants, such as PFAS, from water by exchanging them for another substance with a similar charge–typically chloride–on the surface of a resin. Removal rates vary by PFAS compound.
  • Membrane filtration, using nanofiltration and/or reverse osmosis (RO) membranes. The technology removes dissolved substances by passage through a porous membrane at high pressure. This process, however, creates a concentrated wastewater stream that must then be managed.

PFAS in drinking water are not currently regulated in the United States, however six perfluorinated compounds were monitored under EPA’s Third Unregulated Contaminant Monitoring Rule. The PFAS monitored under UCMR3 included: PFOS, PFOA, perfluorononanoic acid (PFNA), perfluorohexanesulfonic acid (PFHxS), perfluoroheptanoic acid (PFHpA) and perfluorobutanesulfonic acid (PFBS).

In addition to drinking water, EPA is considering additional regulations to manage risks of PFAS in manufacturing and the environment, such as through the Clean Water Act.

EPA is also considering additional compounds as data become available. Under the Safe Drinking Water Act, EPA must consider several factors when establishing a drinking water standard: occurrence, treatment feasibility, and potential health effects. The EPA is currently conducting research to advance our understanding of each of these aspects specifically for PFAS. For example, UCMR 5 is expected to provide a great wealth of occurrence data to support potential future drinking water regulations.

If you get your drinking water from a private well, you should have your water tested by a certified laboratory regularly. PFAS are not contaminants typically measured; if you want to know if PFAS are present in your well water you may contact one of the labs on the UCMR 3 laboratory list for information on how to sample and where to send samples for analysis. Additional information about well water testing from EPA is available on its private drinking water well FAQ page.
Bottled water quality can vary. Bottled water in the United States is regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and is required to meet standards equal to the EPA’s tap water standards. There are also individual state standards. However, in most cases, you must contact the bottled water manufacturer for information about contaminant levels.