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What are these compounds, you ask?
PFOA and PFOS...The synthetic chemicals once used to manufacture a wide array of consumer goods. While they make life more convenient in the short term, they have very detrimental long term effects on human and environmental health.
What are PFOA, PFOS, and PFAS?
Perfluorooctanoic acid and perfluorooctane sulfonate–more commonly referred to as PFOA and PFOS, respectively–are fluorinated organic compounds that are part of larger group of compounds known as perfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS).
These man-made chemicals are infamous for being both water and lipid-resistant. With production taking off in the 1950’s, PFOA and PFOS were commonly used to coat products that were designed to be stain-resistant, waterproof, or non-stick (e.g. DuPont’s Teflon). Although convenient, these highly fluorinated chemicals are associated with some serious health problems. Their negative health effects are compounded by the fact that they persist in the environment for a very, very long time.
In fact, they do not break down in the environment at all.
Unfortunately, during manufacturing processes, PFOS and PFOA were dumped into the soil, emitted into the air, and poured into the water surrounding factory sites–well into the 1970s. Contamination is estimated to exceed 7000 metric tons of these fluorochemicals. This means that most people have been exposed to PFOS and PFOA.
PFOA and PFOS in Drinking Water
In 2016, 1% of samples from public drinking water systems nationwide were found to be contaminated with PFOA. Despite this, the EPA does not currently regulate levels of PFOA and PFOS in drinking water. In 2009, EPA did release provisional health advisories for the chemicals. However, these guidelines are not legally enforceable and are subject to change as new information emerges. These advisories recommended that actions should be taken to reduce exposure when contaminant levels exceeded 400 parts-per-trillion (ppt) for PFOA and 200 ppt for PFOS.
In 2016, EPA updated the 2009 levels with lifetime health advisories for PFOS and PFOA in public water systems. It warned municipalities that the presence of levels above 70 ppt of PFOA and PFOS (combined) in drinking water supplies is not safe.
The chemicals are also now on the EPA’s list of “unregulated contaminants” that the agency monitors, with the goal of restricting those that most endanger public health. However, officials have not regulated any new contaminant in two decades, meaning that the regulation of PFOA is (likely) many years away.
Health Impacts of PFOA and PFOS Exposure
Unfortunately, the information regarding the health consequences of PFOS and PFOA has been slow to appear. Despite public interest groups voicing concerns regarding the carcinogenicity of PFOA and PFAS, many years went by without action or regulation.
However, things are beginning to change. Government agencies can no longer ignore the critical body of literature that has built-up. Multiple groups (including OHAT, NTP, and NIEHS) have announced that they will re-evaluate the immunotoxicity of these chemicals.
While the primary evidence cautioning against PFOA and PFOS contact stems from animal studies, human toxicology studies have also provided insight. Based on the current research on laboratory animals and epidemiological evidence in human populations, the EPA has suggested that exposure to PFOA and PFOS over certain levels may result in the following human health impacts:
- Developmental effects
- Liver damage
- Immune disorders
- Thyroid imbalance
- Cardiovascular concerns
The Future of PFAS Use
3M, the primary manufacturer of PFOS, began a voluntary phase-out of the chemical in 2000. This came as a result of a series of studies showing significant PFOS accumulation in the environment. In 2006, under the guidance of the EPA, eight major companies followed suit and began removing PFOS, PFOA, and other related compounds in the PFAS category. Since then, the vast majority of companies did the same.
While this was certainly a step in the right direction, it is arguably too little too late. A 2007 study determined that more than 98% of the blood samples tested showed the presence of PFOA and PFOS in a general sample of the US population.
How You Can Protect Yourself Against PFOA and PFOS
PFOS and PFOA have been, and likely will continue to be, a threat to our health–given how long they persist in the environment. As agencies continue to work on ways to manage contamination on a larger level, there are a few key things you can do to avoid exposures:
Avoid purchasing household wares that could be problematic. Steer clear of non-stick cookware and coated food packaging. Opt for green cleaning products and avoid household pesticides.
Filter household water if you detect PFAS through water testing–like through our PFA/PFOA/PFOS Water Test. Both activated carbon and reverse osmosis filters have been found to be effective at removing these chemicals.
Check to see if your area has been contaminated. The Environmental Working Group has created an interactive county-by-county map to show areas where they drinking water has been shown to be unsafe.
Stay informed about alternative options. Due to the harmful effects of these fluorinated chemicals, many have been phased out and replaced by numerous similar compounds (with similar, undesirable impacts). This ‘Myth versus Fact’ guide can help you make informed, safe, and healthy decisions.
- Finally, stay tuned on our blog for an upcoming expert interview on PFAS!
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