Per- and Poly-fluoroalkyl Chemicals, better known as PFAs or forever chemicals, are a series of chemicals that resist degradation. They are found in a wide range of products – like nonstick cooking pans, food packaging, waterproof clothing, and firefighting foams – that utilize this superpower to resist heat, oils, stains, and water. While 3M, the main manufacturer of some of the more toxic family members of polyfluoroalkyl chemicals, discontinued the production of certain kinds in the US as early as 2002, these chemicals are still making their way into American households and specifically our water systems.
PFAs in Our Water
While other water suppliers in the LA area have denied detecting PFAs in their water quality reports, the presence in Santa Clarita Valley should serve as a warning: PFAs are entering the drinking water supply, and they will continue to if we don’t fix our water treatment facilities.
How PFAs Get Into Water
When we discharge our water from our homes or businesses, it gets sent to a wastewater treatment facility. These plants have the responsibility of filtering out any debris and lowering the levels of nutrients to acceptable levels. Then, the water is discharged into ponds or fields where they percolate through the soil and make their way back into the water cycle. From there they can cycle back into our drinking water supplies.
Can We Remove PFAs?
The issue is that most of the traditional, and even some more advanced wastewater treatment technology like coagulation, flocculation, sedimentation, filtration, ozonation, and low-pressure membranes, still don’t filter out PFAs. Granular Activated Carbon Adsorption, the stuff you find in your water filters at home, is effective at removing many PFAs. However, these filters only lasts a short 130 days before needing to be reactivated. The only technology found to be effective were nanofiltration, reverse osmosis, and high-pressure membranes – none of which are found at LA county’s 4 wastewater treatment plants.
This means that with time, PFAs may find their way into our drinking water supplies, as they did in Santa Clarita.
PFAs are known as forever chemicals because they don’t break down, even in the human body. While each type of PFA is a little different, most are on the magnitude of a few years with some estimates saying certain types can stay in the human body for up to 4.8 years.
Exposure to PFAs has been associated with “high cholesterol, increased liver enzymes, decreased vaccination response, thyroid disorders, pregnancy-induced hypertension and preeclampsia and cancer (testicular and kidney).” For now, the concentrations found in drinking water are well below the concentrations associated with these health effects. However, the fact that PFAs can last so long in the body and bioaccumulate, means there is a chance these concentrations could be reached before the PFA has time to degrade or pass through the body.
Lowering PFA Exposure
Overall concentrations of PFAs in blood levels have been decreasing since 2000, however, a decrease in the levels does not mean full eradication. The good news is that there are some steps you can take to protect yourself and limit your exposure to PFAs. First, use a water filter for your home and change the filter regularly. Granular Activated Carbon has been shown to be effective in PFA removal. Also, it should be noted that boiling your water will not remove PFAs. Secondly, avoid using cookware with nonstick surfaces. While certain types of PFAs have been banned from these uses, these are often replaced with other types. If using nonstick cookware can’t be avoided, avoid cooking at very high heat. Lastly, contact your local water treatment plant and ask them how they are handling PFAs. Education is important and bringing the problem to our local officials’ attention now will help make them more prepared if higher levels of PFAs were to arise in the future.
Some PFAs and their chemical relatives were also banned in California’s Toxic-Free Cosmetics Act which you can read about here.
Do you cook with non-stick pans? Hike with waterproof jackets? Let us know in the comments your thoughts about PFAs and how companies should work to eradicate this harmful, bioaccumulative chemical.