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What are PFAS?

PFAS are a class of human-made chemicals which includes Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl substances These chemicals are very long-lived, which means that they remain in the environment and in humans and wildlife for a very long time.

The acronym PFAS stands for perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, a class of 12,000 and 14,000 human-made chemicals that are made by combining fluorine and carbon in one of the strongest chemical bonds on Earth. While we do not know the true extent of PFAS use in consumer products, common applications include food packaging, textiles, cosmetics, dental floss, cookware, outdoor gear, medications and medical devices, paint and building materials, car and floor waxes, and other cleaning products.  

The use of older forms of PFAS, called PFOA and PFOS are have been  phased out in the US due to an increased awareness of their harmful effects. Unfortunately, PFAS persist in the environment and have been linked to serious health impacts.

Newer versions which are replacing them in consumer products. are equally as persistent in the environment, more difficult to remove from water, and are also toxic.

How do we use PFAS?

  • Use in fire fighting foam is common but that’s NOT the only use. They have been widely used since 1950s in non-stick cookware, water-repellent clothing, stain resistant fabrics and carpets, some cosmetics, products that resist grease, water, and oil, and food packaging (like pizza boxes and microwave popcorn bags).  
Beakers. Photo credit: Africa Studios / Shutterstock

What are their health effects?

  • They are concerning because they are very persistent, don’t break down in the environment or the human body and can accumulate over time. Children are particularly at risk.
  • Earlier studies have shown that PFOA causes cancer, PFOS disrupts thyroid hormones, both can affect the immune system and reduce infant birth weights.
  • A recent study released by the US Agency for Toxic Substances & Disease Registry (ATSDR) found that PFAS were more harmful than previously thought and that “safe levels” were 10 times less than previously thought. Potential health effects identified in this study include liver damage, increases in cholesterol, increased risk of thyroid disease, asthma, and infertility, decreased response to vaccines, riskier pregnancies, and decreases in birth weight.

How does contamination occur and how are people exposed?

  • Firefighting foam used at factories or airports can contaminate soil and groundwater.
  • Waste from PFAS manufacturing or from industrial facilities using PFAS or making products containing them can also contaminate soil and water.
  • Food packaging containing PFAS can potentially transmit PFAS to the food in the packaging, which we eat.  
  • Use of other products like carpeting, clothing, packaging materials containing PFAS, personal care products, and others can expose our skin to the chemicals.
  • Working at a facility that produces PFAS or that makes products using these chemicals can also be a source of exposure.

What do we want? 

  • We need better tools to find more of these chemicals in water and to know what drinking water sources, private drinking water wells, and other water is contaminated.
  • We need to know where these chemicals are made and used and in what products. We also need to identify how they are getting into the environment and to stop that contamination.
  • We need better information on effects on our health, on wildlife, and on overall environmental quality.
  • Costs of clean up should not be paid by taxpayers, but by those responsible for the contamination.
  • Producers of these chemicals need to be accountable for contamination, and for continuing to make and use these chemicals while withholding evidence of health risks.

What can be done?

State and federal government can act.  The federal government response should include:

  • Identify and disclose where PFAS are manufactured, where releases to the environment are occurring, and their use in food packaging and other consumer items
  • Increase research into human health risks
  • Increase investment in developing laboratory methods to test for PFAS in drinking water, wastewater, and at toxic sites
  • Increase investment in research on treatment to remove PFASs in drinking water and at toxic sites
  • Reform fire fighting foam requirements, including eliminating requirements to use PFASs in training exercises
  • Use all available authority to control releases into the environment
  • Increased drinking water monitoring

What is Clean Water Action doing:

  • Educating policymakers and the public about the risks of PFAS chemicals, how they are used, solutions, and the need to hold polluters accountable.
  • Focusing on drinking water impacts and identifying research needs, impacts on public water systems, and Safe Drinking Water Act responses to protect public health
  • Identifying ways to stop releases including stopping the use of these chemicals, through pollution control programs under Clean Water Act, and using other programs.
  • Working with impacted communities - those with contaminated soil, wells or water sources -  to support their efforts to hold polluters accountable, to get water treatment or new water sources, health monitoring, and clean up of contaminated sites.
  • Working on state regulation and legislation to tell consumers when PFAS is in food packaging and consumer products, to curb their use, stop contamination of water, and hold polluters accountable.
  • Supporting Safe Drinking Water Act programs to monitor PFAS in drinking water, develop accessible testing and treatment technologies identify health protective drinking water standards, and educate consumers about what they can do to protect themselves and their families from PFAS in drinking water.


Letter to EPA: Propose PFAS Standards in Drinking Water

Clean Water Action and Clean Water Fund co-authored and mobilized allies to sign a letter urging the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Biden Administration to propose first-ever federal drinking water standards for some PFAS chemicals. EPA was supposed to publish the proposal in late 2022 but has yet to do so. The following letter, signed by over 100 environmental organizations, urges Administration officials and EPA to move forward which will lead to a public comment period and then finalization of Safe Drinking Water Act limits.

EPA Directs States to Use Water Pollution Permits to Control PFAS

The Clean Water Act has many tools that can—and should—be used to keep these toxic fluorinated “forever chemicals” out of our water. EPA’s memo makes it clear that states can use their existing water program authorities to address PFAS in wastewater discharges immediately.

Using Water Pollution Permits to Keep PFAS out of Drinking Water

Last week EPA issued a memo detailing how the agency will use its water pollution permitting program to limit discharges of PFAS to rivers, streams, lakes, and other water bodies. As we’ve written before on our blog, the Clean Water Act has many tools that can be used to keep these toxic fluorinated “forever chemicals” out of our water. Benefits include shifting the burden away from drinking water systems and communities to clean-up PFAS and back on to the industries that financially benefit from using these chemicals. This memo is a welcome step, but more urgent action is needed.