Have you ever heard of perfluoroalkyl or polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS?
There are more than 4,000 different PFAS chemicals. They are made by humans and usually produced from industrial activity or processes. They were created in the 1940s to help fabrics resist stains, in non-stick coatings and in foam used by firefighters. They have been used in a wide range of products, including carpets, upholstery, mattresses, clothing and non-stick cookware.
Human exposure to PFAS has become a health concern. Studies are being conducted on the effects of exposure because the substances – sometimes called “forever chemicals” in the media – do not break down easily and can stay in the environment for many years.
You can’t see, smell or taste PFAS. You can be exposed to them by eating contaminated food, drinking water with PFAS or using products that contain PFAS. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, scientists have found traces of one or more PFAS in the blood of nearly all the people they tested.
Scientists continue to study the effects of PFAS on humans. So far, studies suggest that exposure to certain PFAS may lead to:
- Changes in liver enzymes
- Increased cholesterol levels
- Increased risk of high blood pressure or preeclampsia in pregnant women
- Increased risk of kidney or testicular cancer
- Small decrease in infant birth weights
- Decreased vaccine response in children
Most uses of two types of PFAS were voluntarily phased out by U.S. manufacturers in the mid-2000s, but there are a few that continue to be used in a limited way. Because the chemicals used since the 1940s don’t break down in the environment and remain in human bodies a long time, they continue to pose health concerns.
PFAS can get into drinking water at the sites where they are made, used, disposed of or spilled. If they are used at a manufacturing plant and are in the air, they can get into rainwater. They are carried by the rainwater run-off into surface water such as lakes and ponds or seep through the soil and get into groundwater.
Public water supplies and private wells that get their water from surface or ground water sources can be contaminated with PFAS. If the water isn’t treated to remove the chemicals, they can get into your body when you drink the water or eat food cooked in it.
The Virginia Department of Health Office of Drinking Water regulates public water systems that provide water for people and have at least 15 service connections or serves an average of at least 25 people for at least 60 days each year.
On June 15, 2022, the EPA issued health advisories for certain PFAS in drinking water that are lower than previous advisories. The VDH is exploring how the new advisories can be used to guide efforts to protect the environment, our drinking water and the health of Virginians.
VDHs Office of Drinking Water is working closely with public water providers to monitor the water that is provided to residents.
Private well owners can test their wells and can learn more about PFAS in private wells on the Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS) in Private Well Drinking Water Supplies page.
What can you do to reduce your exposure to PFAS?
Because PFAS is so common, avoiding them completely would be very difficult. You can avoid products that contain PFAS such as stain-resistant coatings on carpets and upholstery, water-resistant clothing, personal care products, and cosmetics or eating food packaged in materials that contain PFAS such as some grease-resistant food wrappers or boxes and microwave popcorn bags.
Dusting can also help reduce the amount of PFAS in your home that could be swallowed, particularly by infants and young children.
To learn more about PFAS and to read more on what steps VDH is taking to monitor PFAS, visit the Office of Drinking Water’s Frequently Asked Questions.