Thursday, August 16, 2018

BLOG: What are PFAS?

by Jennifer Wemhoff, The Groundwater Foundation

PFAS: You've seen them in the news, on social media, and all around the water world as of late. So let's dig in and try to understand this emerging groundwater contaminant.

What are they?
According to the National Ground Water Association, PFAS refers to per- and poly-fluoralkyl substances. In layman's terms, they're a group of man-made chemicals that have been around since the 1940s, but recently have been discovered in water supplies. They're used in many ways - in firefighting, stain resistance, water repellants, and other industrial uses.

There are literally thousands of chemicals in the PFAS family. These chemicals were extensively manufactured, but were phased out in the early 2000s in the U.S. and Europe. Current manufacturing processes minimize potential adverse effects.

Source: EPA
Why are they in the environment?
PFAS are durable and have a long half-life, which means they can accumulate in the environment and in our bodies. Even though they are no longer manufactured in the U.S., items that may contain these chemicals are still imported. They may also still be present in landfills that have been receiving waste since the 1950s and in facilities that use aqueous film forming foams (AFFF). AFFF are used to fight fires and basically act as a blanket to coat and suppress the fire.

Source: EPA
Why are they a problem?
Since PFAS have been in widespread use, most Americans have had some exposure to them, through water, food, inhalation, using products that contain PFAS, or working in manufacturing facilities that use these chemicals.

Because there are thousands of chemicals classified as PFAS, the health impacts are still unclear. However, studies of some of these chemicals have found associations between PFAS exposure and health problems such as liver and kidney damage, increased cholesterol levels, pregnancy-induced hypertension, certain types of cancer, decreased response to vaccines, and increased risks of thyroid disease, fertility issues, and asthma.

What's being done?
If you have a private well and are concerned about PFAS contamination, you'll need to use specific testing labs that have this testing capability. Find out more.

Earlier this year, the U.S. EPA started the process to evaluate a maximum contaminant level (MCL) for PFAS chemicals in public drinking water supplies. The agency is also looking at cleanup recommendations and working with partners to address PFAS. EPA is currently holding public meetings across the U.S. to talk about how it's addressing PFAS contamination.

How can I find out more?
The National Ground Water Association ( has developed a variety of resources to help understand PFAS and what they mean for you. Find their PFAS Resource Center at You can also find information from EPA at

Information in this blog was adapted from NGWA's PFAS FAQ document.

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