“Nearly half of U.S. tap water has PFAs: Here’s Why ‘Forever Chemicals’ Are Dangerous,” read the July 6, 2023 Forbes.com headline from breaking news staff writer Molly Bohannon’s article. If headlines could shout, this one would surely assault eardrums around the country.
Bohannon covers the many known serious health risks in her article and the fact that concerns about these chemicals, found in a wide range of everyday products as well as in soil and water, are decades old. The fact that they’ve so extensively penetrated our water supply is seriously worrisome.
“The scope of the contamination is shocking,” declared Eric Yeggy, technical affairs director for the Water Quality Association, a trade organization representing the water treatment industry. “Having been broadly used and unregulated for decades, PFAS have found their way into every corner of the world, including very remote places like the North Pole, the Tibetan Plateau, Antarctica, and base camp at Mount Everest. Virtually every human that has been tested has been found to have a cocktail of various PFAS in their blood,” he added.
How do you know if the water coming into your home is safe, and what can you do about it if it’s not? I sent questions to experts in this area, including Yeggy, and am passing along their written responses, edited only for length and clarity, where needed.
Tina Donda, vice president of water systems with the International Association of Plumbing & Mechanical Officials R&T product testing service, noted that these compounds are known as “forever chemicals” because they can last for thousands of years and are impossible to breakdown with currently available technology. “When products containing PFAS are disposed of or spilled into lakes and rivers, they have the potential to contaminate the water. Since these chemicals cannot be decomposed, they live there forever,” hence the moniker. (Note, some experts use PFAS, others PFAs.)
Originally invented in the 1930s, these compounds show up in hundreds of consumer products today, and in firefighting foams and industrial processes. “In March 2023, the US EPA proposed legally enforceable levels for six PFAS in drinking water that would require monitoring of public water supplies,” Donda commented. She further noted, “The USGS report [citing 45% presence] found more risk of PFAS in the drinking water in urban regions, but it comes with a big caveat that data is lacking for private wells. It is likely that far more people are impacted by PFAS in their drinking water.”
Health concerns with these compounds were recognized in the late 1990s to early 2000s, added David Purkiss, vice president of the water division of NSF (founded in 1944 as the National Sanitation Foundation). “These compounds are bio accumulative (concentrations build up in the body with continued exposure), mobile (spread easily) and persistent (do not degrade or are “forever”) in the environment.” Their widespread use was increasing the environmental burden and exceeding threshold levels for health concern, he added. This drove recent research and focus.
“Home water treatment systems designed to remove PFAS are widely available,” Yeggy commented. These include pitcher filters, refrigerator filters, under-counter filters, point-of-use reverse osmosis systems, all the way up to whole house systems. “Consumers should be aware that not all drinking water treatment systems are designed to remove PFAS, and many do not. The best practice is to ensure that a system has been independently certified to remove PFAS before making a purchasing decision,” he advised.
“Check with your water utility company to see if they conduct regular testing for PFAS or other contaminants,” suggested San Francisco-based plumbing contractor Phil Hotarek. “Some utilities test their water supplies for PFAS and may share the results with customers upon request.” Not all forever chemicals are the same, he cautioned. “Therefore, it’s advisable to consult local authorities, health departments, or [your state water board] for specific information about contamination in your area. They can provide guidance on water testing, mitigation efforts, and any associated health risks.”
If you don’t want to check yourself, you can hire an expert. Consumers can find a certified water treatment professional through a search tool on the WQA site, Yeggy said.
Since wells were not part of the testing sample used by USGS in reaching its 45% figure, (and are not routinely monitored by government agencies, as public water suppliers are), it’s unknown how many more households are affected. “For people on private wells – 15 million U.S. households, according to the CDC – they are responsible for their own testing,” Donda pointed out.
“Several states have requirements for well water quality,” she noted, and added that some might start requiring forever chemicals become part of their testing program. “People may have to contact their water supplier to see if they have any information on completed PFAS testing. If not, they will need to send their water to a laboratory.” Your county or state health department can direct you to local labs for kits and testing, Purkiss offered.
One piece of good news, Donda shared, is that the technologies that can reduce or remove forever chemicals can also remove other contaminants, like lead. “To know for sure,” she cautioned, “verify that the product is certified to reduce the specific chemical of concern.” IAPMO provides a listing on its site of products that it has tested and certified, searchable by chemical acronym, (e.g., PFOA, PFAS).
“Water treatment devices that use activated carbon, reverse osmosis or ion exchange technology can be used to reduce the levels of PFAS compounds in treated water,” Purkiss noted, and they’re going to be equally effective for homes on private wells and municipal systems. “However,” he cautioned, “it is important to verify that the treatment units have been tested and certified by an accredited organization like NSF for the removal of PFAS compounds to ensure they meet the standard requirements.” Product packaging will show those certification marks, and organizations like IAPMO and NSF have online listings to verify those branding claims. NSF’s can be found here and WQA’s here. (Look for perfluoroalkyl substances reduction on the NSF site.)
Purkiss estimated that certified point of use filtration devices to treat the water coming out of your faucets will cost from $100 to several hundred dollars. “If you want to treat all the water in your house, you will need a point-of-entry device. However currently there are not many point-of-entry devices certified.” The important thing with all of these treatment devices is to replace them according to the manufacturer’s instructions, he advised.
Hotarek recommends whole house filtration systems as the best option to his Northern California clients, but cost sometimes limits them to point-of-use products, he noted. “Most whole house filters last between eight and 10 years (pending usage) and require no maintenance until the filter expires.”
When choosing a resource, the plumber suggested that you understand the installation process and requirements. “Consider factors such as available space, location of the filter, size of the pipe, and plumbing configuration. Ensure that the system can be properly installed in the home without significant modifications.”
What if yours is one of the 45% of homes that has been impacted by forever chemicals? While your family’s health is the primary concern, there are other potential effects on your household, Hotarek cautioned.
“Significant damage can be caused to appliances. Internal parts will fail sooner, systems will have a shorter lifespan and performance is decreased.” The same is true for water heaters, the plumber warned. If you’re not concerned about those possibilities, point of use filters at your kitchen and bathroom sinks and refrigerator can work. (Don’t forget the faucets in your bathrooms where you take medicines, vitamins, brush and floss your teeth!) WQA’s Yeggy observed that only a tiny percent of a home’s water use is for cooking and drinking. More than 98% is for irrigation, toilets, laundry, dishwashing and other applications, he commented.
Many Americans are adding wellness features to their homes in the form of steam showers and bidet-style toilets. These too are impacted by the presence of forever chemicals, Hotarek observed. Steam showers’ heating elements fail faster and the steam quality is poor, the plumber pointed out. “Not to mention, it is simply not healthy to inhale those chemicals while sitting in a steam room. Better water quality not only enhances the quality of the steam experience, but prolongs the life of the system and reduces the frequency of service calls.”
When it comes to bidet functionality, their components are also affected by poor water quality and impacted valves can start leaking. On a hygienic level, introducing those chemicals to your intimate cleansing ritual isn’t ideal either.
Smart Home Technology
When it comes to whole house filtration, tying into a wellness-focused smart home technology system is a viable option, and forever chemical filtration is an increasing client priority, one of the category’s leaders observed. “As early as 2018, we started tracking PFAS,” recalled Kelly Eager, an architect and wellness design team leader for Delos. “We became more focused on evaluating and curating our offering of water filtration technologies that can address forever chemicals in mid-2022.”
The wellness technology firm’s products are NSF-certified, Eager reported. “Depending on the requirements of the home, the residents, and the plumbing design, these water solutions can treat 100% of the water in the home (e.g., hot and cold water for all fixtures),” she added. The company also offers point of use filtration products.
“Water is life,” Hotarek summarized. “Think about all the essentials in life that require water: cooking, cleaning, appliances, drinking, bathing, etc.” Keeping your water supply safer and healthier can reap health and household dividends.