Public health

PFAS are toxic ‘forever chemicals’ that linger in our air, water, soil and bodies – here’s how to keep them out of your drinking water

Exposure to PFAS during pregnancy can lead to a child’s low birth weight and accelerated puberty. RUNSMART/Digital Vision via Getty Images

Close to half of America’s tap water contains PFAS, or perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances. These “forever chemicals” are in thousands of products, from clothing and cosmetics to cleaning products, and are linked to cancers, liver damage, high cholesterol and asthma.

Dr. Jessica Ray, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Washington, explains what PFAS are, how scientists are trying to remove them from the environment, and what you can do to reduce the impact of PFAS on your own health.

What are PFAS, and how are they used?

Jessica Ray: PFAS are a class of thousands of synthetic chemicals originally manufactured and heavily used in the 1950s. They were the active ingredient in fire suppressant foams that were used at military bases on aircraft fires.

Since then, they’ve been used in many applications and consumer products – shampoos, dental floss, nail polish. They’ve been used in waxy coatings found in food containers. They have also been applied as nonstick coatings; for example, in cookware. They’ve been used in outerwear to help with rain protection.

Why are PFAS called “forever chemicals”?

Jessica Ray: It is difficult for PFAS to degrade naturally in the environment or even during processes like water treatment.

How do PFAS move through the environment?

Jessica Ray: Unfortunately, PFAS like to stick to solid surfaces like soils. They can dissolve in water and enter the Earth’s atmosphere. And because PFAS can permeate air, water and soil, humans and animals can be exposed to them in a multitude of ways.

For example, if PFAS are present in ocean water, and then the fish ingest and become contaminated with PFAS, and then we consume those fish, then we are exposed to PFAS. And unfortunately, researchers have detected PFAS in many, many different drinking water sources worldwide. Not just surface water and groundwater, but bottled water as well.

What are the health impacts of PFAS?

Jessica Ray: PFAS have been linked to liver tissue damage and kidney cancer. If a fetus is exposed to PFAS during pregnancy, that can lead to low birth weight and accelerated puberty. PFAS have also been linked to impairments of the immune system.

How can we reduce personal exposure to PFAS?

Jessica Ray: You can do a number of things. If you’re cooking, you could purchase and use stainless steel or cast iron cookware, very tried and true cookware that should not contain PFAS.

Also look for products that explicitly state they are PFAS-free. And you could buy organic products, those should have lower PFAS loads. Finding ways to reduce PFAS loads to the environment and to drinking water will be important given the Environmental Protection Agency ruling in April 2024 to regulate several PFAS in drinking water.

How can we remove PFAS from our drinking water?

Jessica Ray: A handful of companies are selling essentially a version of a Brita water filter that are targeted for PFAS. Generally though, just using something like a Brita or Pur water filter at home should help reduce exposure to not only PFAS, but other contaminants that might persist even in drinking water that’s distributed to your tap at home.

What about your research on removing PFAS from water?

Jessica Ray: My research group is exploring two different approaches for treating PFAS in water. One approach is to remove or separate PFAS from water. The other is to destroy PFAS in water.

For the separation approaches, we’re looking at […]

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