What are PFOAs and why are they in our drinking water?

Recent news has brought PFOA (aka PFAS, PFOS) to the forefront of water contamination. 

Here's what you need to know.

What are PFOAs?

The compounds in question are called poly- and perfluoroalkyl substances, or PFASs. These substances are synthetic compounds that are unique for being water and lipid-resistant. Because they deter water, grease and oil, fluorochemicals have proven useful for a variety of manufacturing processes and industrial applications.

Starting in the 1950s, PFOS and PFOA  were used to coat a wide range of consumer goods, specifically those designed to be waterproof, stain-resistant or non-stick. Below are just a few of the products in which PFOAs have been used.

  • Textiles
  • Leather
  • Stain-Resistant Carpets
  • Polishes
  • Fire-Retarding Foams
  • Photographic Processing
  • Paper and Packaging For Food
  • Coating Additives For Non-Stick Cookware
  • Cleaning Products
  • Pesticides 

Unfortunately, during the manufacturing processes used to create these household wares, substantial quantities of PFOS and PFOA were dumped into the soil, emitted into the air and poured into the water surrounding factory sites. The products created at these facilities have also been distributed to homes throughout the United States and around the globe. Direct contamination from manufacturing and consumer use of these products is estimated to exceed 7000 metric tons of the fluorochemicals.  As a result most people have been exposed to PFOA, and the compounds have become a serious concern for wildlife, the environment and human health.

PFAS is among the most widely used class of chemicals in the world, and the particles don’t biodegrade. That means they can accumulate in the environment and in animals, including humans. Unfortunately, water plays an important role in exposure to these toxins because PFAS are highly soluble, and can’t be removed by standard wastewater treatment methods.

Are PFOAs toxic? Should I be worried?

A 2015 study by the U.S. National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey  found PFAS in 97 percent of human blood samples. Less than a year ago the White House and the Environmental Protection Agency faced criticism for delaying publication of a health study on the chemicals, which a White House aide had warned could trigger a "public relations nightmare."

Studies on the Health effects of PFAS have linked the chemicals to higher rates of kidney and testicular cancer, higher cholesterol levels, suppressed immune systems and weakened antibody responses to vaccinations among children. Last May, 200 scientists signed the Madrid Statement, showing concern about the manufacture of PFAS.

Dangers of PFOAs in water

Federal scientists last summer concluded that PFOA and PFAS pose dangers at extremely low concentrations in a health assessment. You may not have heard about it because government officials initially sought to block it.

A study published in June in Environmental Science and Technology Letters compared PFAS chemicals in public drinking water with PFAS concentrations in blood samples from women in California. Researchers found PFAS levels up to 40 percent higher among women with the chemical detected in their drinking water compared to those without.

“Our study shows that toxic and highly persistent fluorochemicals are making their way from drinking water into people’s bodies,” said Myrto Petreas of the California Department of Toxic Substances Control. “It underscores the importance of reducing the use of these chemicals whenever possible to protect our drinking water and our health.”

Are PFOAs in our drinking water?

EPA-mandated testing has found the chemicals at unsafe levels in at least 16 million Americans' tap water, but activists say the problem is even more widespread.

When an advocacy group reanalyzed federal monitoring data to include lower levels of contamination, it estimated that as many as 110 million Americans may be drinking water with levels of the chemical that could cause harm. The problem is particularly acute near military bases: more than 400 of which the Pentagon suspects to be contaminated with the chemicals.


PFOAs in drinking water

Areas with detectable levels of poly- and perfluoroalkyl substances (PFASs) and their proximity relationship to industrial sites, military fire training sites, airports and wastewater treatment plants. Image by Hu XC et al., Environmental Science & Technology Letters, 2016. 

“I think the major point of this study is that the extent of PFAS contamination in our country’s drinking water supply is much greater than previous studies have indicated,” environmental toxicologist Jamie DeWitt at East Carolina University said. “We may be underestimating PFAS contamination as monitoring does not often capture data from small systems and private wells.”

What is being done to stop the PFOA contamination?

As recent as January 2019, the federal government has suggested it will not set a drinking water limit for PFOA chemicals that are contaminating millions of Americans' tap water. 

The EPA's decision leaves these chemicals unregulated under the Safe Drinking Water Act. That means utilities will face no federal requirements for testing for and removing the chemicals from drinking water supplies, although several states are swiftly pursuing their own limits.

In order to regulate a chemical under the Safe Drinking Water Act, EPA must show not only that the contaminant is dangerous, but that setting a limit offers "a meaningful opportunity for health risk reduction" and that doing so is financially justified.

Congress established these requirements in amendments to the Safe Drinking Water Act in 1996. They have proven to be major hurdles to new regulations: EPA has not regulated a new contaminant under the drinking water law since then.

An earlier form of the chemical class, long-chain PFAS, was banned in the early 2000s following lawsuits and public outcry. The chemical industry responded by creating a short-chain version of PFASs, where they essentially removed a set of carbon molecules depending on the chemical. Short-chain PFASs are regarded as safer than the long-chain forms.

Currently, the federal government does not regulate short-chain PFASs. But the chemical class is on the EPA’s list of “unregulated contaminants,” meaning they monitor the substances and can issue notices in instances of potential public danger. 

The EPA issued a voluntary health advisory for PFOA and PFOS in 2016, recommending a lifetime limit in drinking water of 70 parts per trillion for both chemicals. A handful of states have established their own drinking water limits, some of which are significantly stricter than the EPA guidance. Other states have lacked the scientific expertise to act on their own and have struggled to explain to their residents why their limits differ from those in neighboring states. Public health advocates say these are reasons a federal drinking water standard is necessary.

But some state and local officials, as well as rural water utilities, have argued against a federal drinking water standard. They say the problem is localized and that utilities across the country should not have to pay to test their water if they are unlikely to find the chemicals.

Does Clearly Filtered remove PFOAs?

We sure do. Our filters are rated to remove up to 99.0% (water pitcher) and up to 99.6% (under the sink filter system) of PFOAs. 

Clearly Filtered's Affinity filtration technology is the only water pitcher filter technology that is certified to remove PFOAs from your tap water. The filters were tested to NSF standards by and EPA-accredited laboratory to ensure that the findings are correct and compliant, putting Clearly Filtered a cut above the rest in terms of filtration capabilities. 

Testing data for the Clearly Filtered Pitcher Filter. 

Testing data for the 3-Stage Under Sink System. 


Can other water filters remove PFOAs from tap water?

Standard carbon filters not only do not have testing to show if they can or cannot remove PFOAs, but because of the nature of the contaminant and the sheer level at which PFOAs become dangerous (we're talking parts per trillion), they are incapable of removing a contaminant of this size and toxicity. 

Even more robust Reverse Osmosis systems have trouble removing PFOAs and likely do not have the testing to prove that the systems can or cannot remove it from the water during filtration. 


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