Drinking Dark Waters? Learn More About Why YOU Should Care About PFAS Chemicals

When out shopping for kitchenware, for those of us tired of food sticking to pans, the words “non-stick” may catch our attention. Similarly, when we want clothing that can handle poor weather conditions, we look for waterproof fabrics. Though these products certainly provide us with convenience, the chemicals utilized to create the non-stick, water-proof phenomena can lead to serious health concerns. As now being shown in the movie Dark Waters, with activist actor Mark Ruffalo, the chemicals are called “PFAS (polyfluoroalkyl substances),” man-made substances developed as surfactants, which allow water, oils or grease to slip on the surface of the item due to the lower surface tension caused by the chemicals.

Some common household items that may contain PFAS (which may be identified on labels as “Teflon”, originally developed by Dupont) are:

  • Nonstick cookware (i.e. pots, pans, etc.)
  • Microwave popcorn bags; Fast food wrappers and takeout containers, grease-resistant baking paper, pizza boxes 
  • Personal care items (nail polish, mascara, shampoos, body soaps, detergent, deodorants)
  • Coatings used in upholstery, carpets, or rugs that resist stains
  • Cleaning products (polishes), Paints (spray or liquid), car waxes, varnish
  • Water-resistant clothing (i.e. boots, raincoats, etc.)

Additionally, PFAS has been detected around airports, military bases, firefighting training sites, and industrial plants. The areas surrounding these locations often show high PFAS levels due to the firefighting foams used for training or emergency purposes. PFAS contaminates ground water which, on Long Island, becomes our homes’ tap water. 

As consumers, we regularly interact with PFAS due to how many products contain the chemical. However, it usually takes prolonged exposure to PFAS before it begins to impact one’s health (usually via drinking water). When ingested, PFAS chemicals linger within the body for long periods of time due to their slow rate of molecular break down, gradually increasing their levels and the risk of disease over time. Studies have found that PFAS chemicals (as well as the variants PFOS (perfluorooctanesulfonic acid) and PFOA (perflorooctonoic acid) induce the following at varying levels of exposure:

  • Increased cholesterol levels
  • Kidney and liver toxicity 
  • Endocrine disruption
  • Increased risk of developing tumors (mostly kidney and testicular cancers)
  • Low infant birth weights

Though continually drinking PFAS contaminated water could eventually cause a greater risk of developing diseases, water filters such as Carbon (GAC), Ion Exchange, and Reverse Osmosis filters can reduce the PFAS levels in our drinking water to counteract the risks of acquiring illnesses. To reduce our exposure, it is also important to try and limit our daily use of products that contain these chemicals. Here are some ways we can avoid these risks:

  • Limit eating food stored in grease-resistant food wrapping such as fast food take-out containers;
  • Carefully read the ingredients of personal care products;
  • Purchase PFOA-free and polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE)-free cooking wares such as stainless steel or ceramic;
  • Use less toxic cleaning products;
  • Contact your local health department or water district if you are not sure if your area is contaminated with these chemicals.

In regard to water filters, please be aware of the pros and cons of each filter type: 

  • Carbon is effective for long—chains (PFOA & PFOS) but has difficulty with shorter-chains (PFBS & PFBA)[1]
    • Cost of purchase and installation is less than Ion Exchange and Reverse Osmosis filters; 
    • Limited to the faucet the device is attached to. 
  • Ion Exchange and Reverse Osmosis are effective against long and short-chain PFAS; [2] 
    • Cost of purchase, installation and annual maintenance is more expensive than a carbon filter in the long run; 
    • Rather than specific faucets, Ion Exchange and Reverse Osmosis filters can be applied to the entire house.
  • NSF International tests and certifies products and systems, so check if your filter follows the NSF standards. [3]
    • Look for the following terminology on the product label: “NSF P473” or “NSF Certified to Standard P473.”

 See also:

  1. EPA: Reducing PFAS in Drinking Water with Treatment Technologies
  2. EWG: Removing Toxic Fluorinated Chemicals From Your Home’s Tap Water
  3. MSU Extension: List of household filters approved for certain PFAS removal