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

by Ryan Fair / Jan 29, 2019
What are PFOAs, and why are they in our drinking water?

News surrounding PFOA contamination (aka PFAS, PFOS) infiltrating our groundwater and drinking water systems has sparked fear among many. Is tap water safe? How harmful are these chemicals? Do water treatment plants filter these out before the water hits my tap? These are all questions we’ll answer in this article.

Here’s what you need to know.

What are PFOAs?

PFOAs are part of a larger family of chemicals called perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFASs. PFAS is an umbrella term for over 9,000 chemicals, including PFBS, Genx, PFHXS, and PFNA. 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 various manufacturing processes and industrial applications.

Starting in the 1950s, perfluorooctane sulfonic acid (PFOS) and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) were used to coat a wide range of consumer products, 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 (and are still currently used in many cases).

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

The paths to human ingestion of these chemicals are numerous. Unfortunately, during the manufacturing processes used to create these household wares, substantial quantities of PFOS and PFOA are dumped into the soil, emitted into the air, and poured into the water systems surrounding factory sites, jeopardizing the environmental health of the area.

The products created at these facilities have also been distributed to homes throughout the United States and around the globe through public water systems. Direct contamination from manufacturing and consumer use of these products is estimated to exceed 7000 metric tons of fluorochemicals. As a result, most people have experienced PFOA exposure, and the compounds have become a serious concern for wildlife, the environment, and human health.

PFAS is among the world’s most widely used classes of chemicals, 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 U.S. National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey study 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 the 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 kidney and testicular cancer rates, higher cholesterol levels, low birth weight, suppressed immune systems, thyroid disease, 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. In fact, these chemicals are measured in parts per trillion (ppt) with a health advisory level set at just 70 ppt by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (U.S. EPA). However, 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 levels of PFAS up to 40 percent higher among women with the chemical detected in their drinking water sources 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 of PFOAs 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 contamination levels, it estimated that as many as 110 million Americans might be drinking water with chemical levels that could cause harm. The problem is particularly acute near military bases: more than 400 of which the Pentagon suspects to have contaminated water from 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 recently as January 2019, the federal government has suggested it will not set a maximum contaminant level (MCL) for PFOA chemicals 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. However, several states are swiftly pursuing their own limits to help improve water quality for their populations.

To regulate a chemical under the Safe Drinking Water Act, the 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. But, unfortunately, they have proven to be significant hurdles to new regulations: EPA has not regulated a new drinking water 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 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 significantly stricter than the EPA guidance. Other states have lacked the scientific expertise to act independently and have struggled to explain to their residents why their limits differ from those in neighboring states. Public health advocates say a federal drinking water standard is necessary for these reasons.

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

Does Clearly Filtered target 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 filter 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 treatment systems 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 can 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. 

You can learn more about how different filters work to remove PFOAs here.