Perfluorochemicals (PFCs) Contamination in Drinking Water
Across the country, the levels of perfluorochemical (PFC) contamination have reached serious levels.
Millions of Americans drink PFC-laced water. Whether we know it or not, these unregulated chemicals have silently slipped into most of our groundwater and drinking water sources. PFCs are linked to many dangerous health effects, posing a risk to humans as well as the environment — which is why you need to understand the nature of these chemicals, how they migrate into waterways, their effects on human health, and what steps you can take to reduce them in your water.
What Are Perfluorochemicals?
Perfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), perfluoroctane sulfonate (PFOS), and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) are all considered PFCs — PFCs are a group of synthetic chemicals used to manufacture products that resist water, grease, oil, stains, and heat. This means that PFCs, and the compounds considered to be part of this group, are incredibly stable chemicals, able to withstand extreme conditions without breaking down. However, this also means that they won’t degrade easily in the environment — when PFCs enter an ecosystem, they remain intact.
Chemicals within the broad category of PFCs belong to one of two groups — short-chain and long-chain PFCs. Short-chain PFCs have less than six carbon molecules per compound, and they typically are less stable and degrade faster than long-chain PFCs. Long-chain PFCs have two subcategories — they are either perfluoroalkyl sulfonic acids with six or more carbon molecules or perfluoroalkyl carboxylic acids with eight or more carbons per compound. Long-chain PFCs are of particular concern in the environment — more difficult to degrade, these compounds persist in water, soil, and the bloodstream for years.
Both short and long-chain PFCs have been found in water systems across the nation. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) along with many state governments has established guidelines for PFC concentration in drinking and source waters, but currently, the federal government hasn’t set any enforceable limits for PFC compounds in drinking water.
Here’s just one state example: New Jersey’s environmental protection department recently recommended the state reduce the amount of perfluoroctane sulfonate (PFOS) in its drinking water. In June 2018, the state’s Drinking Water Quality Institute unanimously approved a recommendation to lower the limit of PFOS allowed in the groundwater and drinking water to 13 parts per trillion (ppt). This action came as a result of sobering studies conducted by the EPA from 2013 to 2015, which found PFOS in 3.4 percent of all of the public water systems in New Jersey — almost twice the national average.
PFCs are common chemicals in our lives — you can find them in everything from the coating of a frying pan to the lining of a bag of microwave popcorn. Below are only a few examples of objects containing PFCs.
- Non-stick cookware: Non-stick cookware is a staple product in most homes. After cooking a meal, the last thing you want is to scrape away at encrusted oils and residue. But despite its convenience, new research suggests that non-stick cookware could be toxic, primarily due to the presence of PFCs. When the pan is heated, PFCs are released in the air, entering our bodies and the environment of our home.
- Stain-resistant carpets and fabrics: No one likes stains, especially if accidents happen on expensive sofas or rugs. PFCs give stain-resistant properties to fabrics, but over time, the chemicals leach out of the material and enter the rest of our homes, including water sources.
- Coatings on food packaging: If any product has been designed to withstand high heat, look for PFCs — they will almost always be a contributing component to the item. Microwave-safe products and packaging, in particular, are full of PFCs, including microwave popcorn. While the chemicals help the product survive the intense heat, they also pass into our food. PFCs are also common in fast food bags and wrappers for its grease-resistant properties.
- Water-resistant clothing: Whether it’s your favorite raincoat or durable backcountry tent, many water-resistant fabrics contain PFCs. As the elements wear on these outdoor materials, PFCs leach away into the environment.
- Sealed flooring: Treated floor waxes, along with tile, stone, and wood sealants, are known carriers of PFCs. As the treatments and sealants gradually wear away, the small amounts of PFC-laced dust enter the air and are absorbed through the lining of the lungs.
Almost every American household has PFC-containing products, but the problem is amplified if you live close to major industrial centers. PFCs are commonly used in industrial contexts such as electronics manufacturing and plastic production. The benefits of PFCs have made them an asset to industrial production for decades — but we are only now beginning to see their negative long-term impacts.
Because PFCs are such a stable compound, researchers have found buildups of the chemicals in sediment deposits, soil, water, and even the human bloodstream. PFCs enter into drinking water in countless ways — it can happen when the trace PFCs in microwave popcorn get washed down a kitchen drain or when the elements wear down a water-resistant backpack on a hike.
PFCs are also highly soluble in aquatic environments, which means that they dissolve — but don’t degrade — in almost any water source. Researchers have noted PFCs in lakes, tributaries, rivers, and groundwater, and the contamination keeps rising. In part, this is because of how little PFC it takes to pollute a water source.
The amount of PCFs in the environment is measured in parts per trillion — for a water system to be considered polluted, it only needs 70 parts per trillion. This makes the pollution of industrial complexes even more of a threat because they contribute more PFCs into the environment than any other source.
Three of the major sources of PFC contamination in drinking water are industrial factory runoff, landfill leaching, and fire retardant foam.
Industrial Factory Runoff
Most often, high PFC counts are in sites near industry discharge points — the greatest contributors to PFC pollution are large-scale military or industrial operations that leach the chemicals into water systems.
PFCs are used in many manufacturing processes including the production of plastic and electronics. Grease and heat resistant, PFC compounds are viewed as essential for many industrial settings, where both heat and grease are abundant.
But the results can be severe. Factory runoff contributes massive amounts of pollution to ground and drinking water, dumping PFCs into the environment in large quantities. Areas with significant industrialization almost always face dangerous levels of PFCs in their drinking water.
PFC pollution doesn’t have to be recent to be dangerous.
Our landfills pose many significant problems for PFC contamination. For the people of St. Paul Park, Minn., the consequences of landfill PFCs have taken a personal turn. Officials shut down several city wells after discovering dangerous levels of PFCs in the city’s drinking water.
The source was a 40-year-old chemical dump from the 1970s. PFCs were found in the town’s water as early as 2004, but the problem recently worsened. An environmentally minded initiative to install a plastic lining beneath the old landfill has led to further complications. While the plan was well-intentioned, the process of digging up the landfill exposed the buried chemical material to air, wind, and rain. The plastic lining was designed to reduce chemical pollution in the long run, but in the short-term it backfired — a surge of PFCs poured into the town’s groundwater and a nearby lake.
3. Fire Retardant Foam
Firefighting is a dangerous, heroic, and vital job in any society. But the modern foam used to subdue fires isn’t necessarily eco-friendly — many formulas are filled with PFC compounds, and as the foam is sprayed into a fire, these chemicals are released into the air. Additionally, as the rubble from a fire is washed away with water, PFCs can be swept into water systems.
From small urban accidents to large-scale airplane fires, firefighting foam is used in large quantities in a variety of contexts — even during emergency training, when a real fire isn’t present. Hydrocarbon fires can’t be put out by water, and rely on Aqueous Film-Forming Foam (AFFF) to smother dangerous and explosive fires. Heavily urbanized areas and sites near military bases typically experience higher PFC levels, as Pennsylvania resident Lori Cervera learned the hard way.
In 2014, an otherwise healthy and active Cervera suddenly developed stage 2 kidney cancer. After undergoing treatment and surgery, she began researching into possible causes. What she found was disconcerting — a nearby abandoned military facility had contaminated the local water with PFC. The rest of the nation slowly took notice, and in 2015, Cervera was warned by officials to stop drinking or using her water immediately.
Although companies are developing new firefighting foams that don’t include PFCs, the lingering effects of decades of PFC-filled foam continue to cause problems for communities and the environment.
The Effects of PFCs in Drinking Water
Researchers claim that the combination of large-scale industrial contamination and small, daily PFC pollution is linked to serious health problems. While almost everyone has detectable levels of PFCs in their bloodstream, many don’t experience any noticeable side effects — the dangers of PFC are most apparent in people who have experienced consistent, long-term exposure to the chemicals. The full effects of PFCs on human health are still being researched, but current studies point to several major health effects in the following areas.
Reproductive and Developmental Issues
PFCs have been linked to several reproductive and developmental issues, particularly with fetuses during pregnancy and breastfed infants.
- Reduced female fertility
- Reduced sperm quality
- Pre-eclampsia, or pregnancy-induced hypertension
- Low birth rate
- Skeletal variations and birth defects
- Accelerated puberty
- Development of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
While the full connection between PFCs and reproductive issues is still unknown, most research points to a concerning correlation — the higher the levels of PFC in the parent’s blood, the more the child is at risk for developmental problems.
Once in the bloodstream, PFCs do not metabolize. Instead, they bind to proteins and are distributed to three main areas in the body — the liver, kidneys, and blood. Consequently, these are the areas that are at the most risk of developing PFC-related cancer.
Below is a list of the types of cancer most associated with high PFC levels.
- Testicular cancer
- Kidney cancer
- Liver cancer
- Bladder cancer
- Prostate cancer
In 2006, the EPA recommended that the U.S. classify PFCs as a likely human carcinogen, but the chemical is still widely used in applications like fast food wrappers.
Currently, the majority of the research connecting PFCs and immune function has been conducted on mice in animal studies. But the results are concerning — all indicators point to a worrying link between high PFC levels and a suppressed and inefficient immune response.
Researchers have linked PFCs with the following immune insufficiencies:
- Suppressed hormonal immune response
- Reduced production of lymphocytes
These results reduce the body’s ability to fight off bacterial invasions and enhance its response to allergens, increasing the severity of allergic reactions.
Thyroid and Hormone Imbalance
PFCs are endocrine disrupters, which means it takes very little of these chemicals to interfere with an entire hormonal system. Studies have linked PFCs with several hormone imbalances, including:
- Abnormal endocrine activity
- Decreased levels of estradiol and early menopause
- Rapid weight gain
Only a small amount of PFC is required to disrupt hormone function, putting communities around military and urban centers at risk.
As results from new studies continue to develop, PFCs are increasingly connected with a wide range of other serious conditions, including:
- Liver damage
- Increased cholesterol levels
- Increased uric acid, a marker of heart disease
Although further studies are needed to confirm early research, the current findings are enough to worry the health and science community. In 2015, over 200 scientists signed the Madrid Statement to express concern about the chemicals, indicating a widespread awareness and uneasiness about PFC’s presence in our water systems.
The problem of PCFs is still not solved, but it’s possible to reduce your exposure.
Check a map that traces PFC pollution to see if your area has tested positive for contamination. If you suspect your water might contain PFCs, the next step is to test your water. Contact your public water system to learn about the last time your system was tested for PFC, and ask for the results of the test. For more detailed analysis, send a sample of your water to a lab or water testing service to determine the PFC concentration in your water.
If your water contains PFCs, evaluate your home for items that contain the chemicals. Switch out traditional non-stick cookware for non-toxic alternatives, and start popping your popcorn on the stove. With a few changes, you can reduce the amount of PFCs introduced into your environment, although existing PFCs will be hard to target.
The best solution for reducing PFCs in your water is through a carbon block filtration system. These systems use incredibly fine filtration technology to remove a variety of contaminants from a water source. Carbon block filters use a combination of physical adsorption, chemical reaction, and mechanical filtration to purify your water without removing beneficial minerals.
You can find excellent carbon block filters in a range of sizes, from whole-house systems to small countertop products that filter tap water. By removing sources of PFCs in your home and investing in a superior carbon block filter, you will go a long way in reducing your exposure to the toxins.
PFCs contribute to a growing pollution crisis across the nation. But we shouldn’t have to worry about our water — a high-quality water filter will keep you and your family safe and healthy for years to come.
Multipure is passionate about improving the health of people and the environment. Our range of filters with carbon block technology will cleanse your water of viruses, bacteria, and cysts, along with toxic chemicals such as PFCs. Multipure’s products have been backed by NSF International certifications and rigorous third-party testing, ensuring their performance, quality, and reliability.
With a wide range of customizable features and designs, you can find the perfect solution to suit your home and situation. Browse our collection of drinking water systems, or contact us to learn more about how a filter can protect you from contaminants like PFCs.