• Dhathri Srungaram

Emerging Contaminants in Tap Water: PFAS

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulates tap water in the US. They are responsible for identifying and assessing emerging contaminants in water. Emerging contaminants are contaminants that were either previously undetected in public water supplies or found in smaller, less harmful concentrations.

If an emerging contaminant poses a public health risk, the EPA takes steps to regulate it and requires public water providers to meet these new regulations. A recent example of this taking place is with the contaminants in per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), which the EPA has started to regulate in the public water supply.

PFAS is a class of man-made chemicals that represents more than 5,000 substances that are found in many products we use daily, such as shampoo, candy wrappers, and pesticides. These chemicals don’t break down under normal environmental conditions and can remain on the human body for decades. As such, scientists call them 'forever chemicals.' According to a study, most Americans' drinking water contains ‘forever chemicals,' like PFAS.

The full extent of the effects of emerging contaminants in the PFAS family isn't known yet, but research has linked PFAS chemicals to:

  • Increase cholesterol levels.

  • Decrease how well the body responds to vaccines.

  • Increase the risk of thyroid disease.

  • Decrease fertility in women.

  • Increase the risk of serious conditions like high blood pressure or pre-eclampsia in pregnant women.

  • Lower infant birth weights; however, the decrease in birth weight is small and may not affect the infant’s health.

Fortunately, there are some resources available to help people determine whether their water is unsafe and to provide solutions in case it isn't. The Environmental Working Group (EWG) has provided an interactive map to help people determine the PFAS concentration in their drinking water supply. The EPA has recently developed a plan to address the public health concerns that PFAS creates. This plan aims to:

  • Provide short-term and long-term solutions to the issue.

  • Create a multi-faceted program to address the issue.

  • Respond to the extensive public input the agency has received over the past year during the PFAS National Leadership Summit, multiple community engagements, and through the public docket.

The EPA’s PFAS plan will take steps to address PFAS in drinking water, reducing PFAS exposure in communities, and investing in research to reduce PFAS related risks.

There can be massive ramifications to unsafe drinking water and most of the time it isn’t always obvious that something is wrong. A change to the color, odor, or taste, of the water, is very obvious, but this isn’t always the case with some contaminants in water.

Unfortunately, switching to bottled water isn’t feasible or affordable for the majority of the US population. Additionally, some bottled water may just be bottled tap water that comes from municipal sources, which are not very different from regular tap water. Some people may opt to purchase a filter for their homes to save money when ensuring their water is safe. There are many things to consider when purchasing a filter. The most important being whether or not the filter actually removes the contaminants in your supply. There are several different kinds of filters. Some remove chlorine and iron which are sometimes added to the water to treat for other contaminants by the public water provider.

The National Science Foundation (NSF) is a federal research and education organization that exists and operates independently of the US government. The NSF has created a set of standards for water filters, with each standard corresponding to the removal of a particular contaminant or category of contaminants. Filters that remove or reduce PFAS contaminants are certified as P473 filters by the NSF.

Like those in the PFAS family, emerging contaminants can be filtered with a Reverse Osmosis (RO) filter or a Granular Activated Carbon (GAC) filter. Some RO filters can filter out PFAS below a detectable level. It is important to research filters before purchasing one if you decide that a filter is necessary for you and/or your family.


Speaking Plainly:

  • The EPA regulates emerging contaminants in water.

  • PFAS is a class of emerging contaminants in water that are called 'forever chemicals' because they don't break down easily.

  • The full extent of the effects of emerging contaminants in the PFAS family isn't known yet, but studies have linked the chemicals to negative health developments.

  • The EPA has created a plan to address the issue of PFAS contaminants that involves providing long- and short-term solutions to the public.

  • An appropriate water filter, especially one that is certified by the NSF, can be used to help reduce the risk of these contaminants in drinking water.