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How to limit PFAS in your drinking water and food, according to experts

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The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has finalized stringent new regulations on levels of six perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, in public water systems.

However, the regulations do not apply to all drinking water in the United States and will take several years to go into full effect, leaving many citizens still at risk, critics say.

Used since the 1950s to make consumer products nonstick, oil- and water-repellent and resistant to temperature change, PFAS chemicals have been linked to serious health problems, including cancer, fertility issues, high cholesterol, hormone disruption, liver damage, obesity and thyroid disease.

Within three years, utilities which provide water to at least 15 service connections or 25 people will have to implement testing procedures and begin notifying the public about PFAS levels if they are above the new standard. They will then have five years to reduce levels, according to the new standards.

The new regulations do not apply to well water. About 15% of the U.S. population, or more than 43 million people, rely on drinking water from wells, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. States could apply for up to $6 billion in grants from 2022 to 2026, however, to counter PFAS pollution and address the needs of small or disadvantaged communities.

The regulations also do not apply to manufacturing facilities that use PFAS to create products, said Melanie Benesh, vice president of government affairs for the Environmental Working Group, a consumer organization that monitors exposure to PFAS and other chemicals.

“The burden should not entirely be placed on drinking water utilities,” she said. “Really, the burden should be further upstream on polluters to stop the pollution at the source. So, we do need more limits on the amount of PFAS that can be released into the air and water.”

Called forever chemicals because they never break down in the environment, PFAS can take years to completely leave the body, according to a 2022 report by the prestigious National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.

“Let’s say you have 10 nanograms of PFAS in your body right now. Even with no additional exposure, five years from now you would still have 5 nanograms,” Jane Hoppin, director of the Center for Human Health and the Environment at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, told CNN previously.

“Five years later, you would have 2.5 and then five years after that, you’d have one 1.25 nanograms,” she continued. “It would be about 25 years before all the PFAS leave your body.”

Testing your water

What can consumers do right now to limit the levels of PFAS in their drinking water?

For people served by public water systems, start by looking up levels of contaminants in your area, Andrews suggested. The advocacy nonprofit has created a national tap water database searchable by zip code that lists PFAS and other concerning chemicals, as well as a national map that illustrates where PFAS has been detected in the U.S.

If a local public water system does not test for PFAS or you use well water, try purchasing a test from a certified lab, Andrews said.

In the new EPA regulations, PFOA and PFOS, two of the most well-studied and potentially toxic chemicals, cannot exceed 4 parts per trillion in drinking water. The prior health advisory set a limit of 70 parts per trillion, the EPA said.

To put that into perspective, a single part per trillion is equivalent to 7 square feet out of the 7 trillion square feet that make up the state of Texas, according to EWG.

“The most important thing is to ensure the testing method can detect down to at least four parts per trillion or lower of PFAS,” Andrews said. “There are a large number of labs across the country certified to test to that level, so there are a lot of options available.”

For another three chemicals — PFNA, PFHxS and GenX chemicals— the EPA is setting the maximum at 10 parts per trillion. In addition, because PFAS is often found in mixtures “and research shows these mixtures may have combined health impacts,” an additional limit was set for any mixture of two or more of PFNA, PFHxS, PFBS, and GenX chemicals, the agency said.

Filtering your water

If PFAS levels are concerning, consumers can purchase an under-the-counter water filter for their tap. NSF, formerly the National Sanitation Foundation, has a list of recommended filters.

“The water filters that are most effective for PFAS are reverse osmosis filters, which are more expensive, about in the $200 range,” Andrews said. Reverse osmosis filters can remove a wide range of contaminants, including dissolved solids, by forcing water through various filters.

“Granular activated carbon filters are more common and less expensive but not quite as effective or consistent for PFAS,” he said, “although they too can remove a large number of other contaminants.”

Installing a reverse osmosis filter for your tap is an effective way to remove potentially toxic chemicals from your drinking water.

Reverse osmosis filtration system (sandsun / Getty Images)

Reverse osmosis systems use both carbon-based filters and reverse osmosis membranes, Andrews explained. Water passes through the carbon filter before entering the membrane.

“The important part is that you have to keep changing those filters,” he said. “If you don’t change that filter, and it becomes saturated, the levels of PFAS in the filtered water can actually be above the levels in the tap water.”

Carbon filters are typically replaced every six months, “while the reverse osmosis filter is replaced on a five-year time frame,” he added. “The cost is relatively comparable over their lifetime.”

Another positive: Many of the filters that work for PFAS also filter other contaminants in water such as disinfectants, Andrews said.

For people who rent or cannot otherwise install a permanent solution, there are countertop water filters that do a good job of filtering PFAS and some other contaminants, he said.

Scientists at EWG tested countertop filtering systems on the market and posted their results online. The downside, of course, is the small amount of water they can filter at one time.

PFAS in food and your home

Drinking water is not the only way PFAS enters the bloodstream. PFAS is used in nonstick cookware and food packaging to make products resistant to stains, water and grease damage.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has found food packaging materials like fast-food wrappers, microwave popcorn bags and take-out pizza boxes are a major source of dietary exposure to PFAS. In February 2024, the FDA announced that manufacturers in the U.S. would no longer be using certain PFAS chemicals in grease-proofing substances applied on paper and paperboard packaging.

A Burger King Whopper in a wrapper, left, rests next to a McDonald's Big Mac in a container, in Walpole, Mass., Wednesday, April 20, 2022 (Steven Senne /AP Photo)

However, there are nearly 15,000 types of PFAS in use today, the EPA said. Carpets, couches, stain-resistant clothes, commercial aircraft, low-emission vehicles, cell phones and cosmetics – the list of popular products that contain PFAS are too numerous to mention and nearly impossible to avoid.

Health advisories issued in June 2023 by the EPA found certain PFAS chemicals are even more hazardous to human health than scientists originally thought, at levels thousands of times lower than previously believed.

The 2022 National Academies report set “nanogram” levels of concern and encouraged clinicians to conduct blood tests on patients who are worried about exposure or who are at high risk. (A nanogram is equivalent to one-billionth of a gram.)

People in “vulnerable life stages” — such as during fetal development in pregnancy, early childhood and old age — are at high risk, the report said. So are firefighters, workers in fluorochemical manufacturing plants, and those who live near commercial airports, military bases, landfills, incinerators, wastewater treatment plants and farms where contaminated sewage sludge is used.

The PFAS-REACH (Research, Education, and Action for Community Health) project, funded by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, gives the following advice on how to avoid PFAS at home and in products:

• Stay away from stain-resistant carpets and upholstery, and don’t use waterproofing sprays.
• Look for the ingredient polytetrafluoroethylene, or PTFE, or other “fluoro” ingredients on product labels.
• Avoid nonstick cookware. Instead use cast-iron, stainless steel, glass or enamel products.
• Boycott takeout containers and other food packaging. Instead cook at home and eat more fresh foods.
• Don’t eat microwave popcorn or greasy foods wrapped in paper.
• Choose uncoated nylon or silk dental floss or one that is coated in natural wax.

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