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'Forever Chemicals' Set to Be Removed From Tap Water. Here's What to Know

A new rule aims to reduce exposure to PFAS, which have been linked to health problems. Here's what we know about PFAS in water and other products.

Jessica Rendall Wellness Reporter
Jessica is a writer on the Wellness team with a focus on health technology, eye care, nutrition and finding new approaches to chronic health problems. When she's not reporting on health facts, she makes things up in screenplays and short fiction.
Expertise Public health, new wellness technology and health hacks that don't cost money Credentials
  • Added coconut oil to cheap coffee before keto made it cool.
Jessica Rendall
5 min read
A glass of water against a coral background
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A few years down the road, your tap water could be a little healthier for you. The US Environmental Protection Agency on Wednesday announced a finalized rule from the Biden administration requiring public water systems test for and reduce the levels of per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances in drinking water. 

PFAS are also called "forever chemicals" because of the way they build up in the environment and people's bodies. 

About a year ago, the EPA announced plans for the first-ever national standard. As it rolls into effect over the next several years, it will require about 6% to 10% of the 66,000 public drinking water systems affected to reduce their levels of PFAS, the EPA estimates.  All public water systems have three years to complete their initial monitoring for PFAS and must "implement solutions" within five years if PFAS are too high. 

PFAS are chemicals in products and coatings that resist heat, so they're commonly found in clothes, furniture, food containers and personal care products. They're a concern, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, because they don't break down in the environment. So they move through soil, contaminate drinking water and build up in wildlife and animals -- including most people in the US. 

A young child drinking directly from the kitchen sink
Thanasis Zovoilis/Getty Images

How PFAS affect health 

Like most potentially harmful chemicals or elements in our environment, the concern is over prolonged exposure (years) or larger amounts of exposure that increases the risk of negative health effects. 

Some health effects that may be linked to higher levels of PFAS include increased cholesterol, changes to the liver, increased risk of certain cancers, low birth weight, high blood pressure in pregnancy and even decreased vaccine response. They may also interfere with the body's hormones and impact fertility. 

Young children and those who are pregnant may be more susceptible to PFAS than the general population, as are some industrial workers whose jobs have them around certain chemicals. To check for water contamination in your area, you can use the Environmental Working Group's ZIP code search feature.

The CDC notes that the health risks of humans exposed to lower levels of PFAS are uncertain and that finding a detectable level of it in a blood serum sample doesn't mean you'll develop health effects. 

The agency also notes that US production of two types of PFAS -- PFOA and PFOS -- has declined since the early 2000s but that people may be exposed to different types of PFAS as they're replaced. 

Read more: That Old Nonstick Skillet May Be Unsafe. How to Tell

What will the drinking water rule do? 

The new rule, which is the first legally enforceable national drinking water standard, will set a limit at 4 parts per trillion of the widely used and studied PFOA and PFOS, a level which is "lowest levels that are feasible for effective implementation," the EPA said in a press release. Standards for PFAS called PFNA, PFHxS and HFPO-DA (also called "GenX Chemicals") will be set at 10 parts per trillion, and there's also a rule for mixing PFAS. 

Water or utility systems will have to abide by these standards. 

While some money has been allocated through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law to help states and territories pay for and implement testing, as the EPA outlined this week in its announcement, The New York Times reported water utilities are concerned about funding to comply with the standard. 

Groups like the EWG have been calling for more federal regulation of PFAS levels for years and have proposed limits that are significantly lower than what's currently set at the national level. However, states or cities may set their own levels and water filtration rules for PFAS. 

Non-stick cookware with water droplets on the surface

The coating on nonstick pans is another source for trace amounts of PFAS, which build up over time. 

Paolo Martinez Photography/Getty Images

When will it be in effect? 

It still may be a while before people start drinking water with less PFAS contamination. According to the EPA press release, public water systems have three years to "complete their initial monitoring for these chemicals" and then let the public know the level of PFAS in the community's drinking water. They have a total of five years to "implement solutions" that would bring the PFAS level down to the acceptable level.

After it's all said and done, this new rule could reduce PFAS exposure for approximately 100 million people, the EPA and Biden administration say. However, as The New York Times notes, legal challenges to the rule could potentially delay or interfere with its effect.

Will my water filter work? What products contain PFAS? 

If you use one of the popular activated carbon filters (like a Brita pitcher, for example) it might not remove PFAS as effectively or consistently as a reverse osmosis filter -- a more expensive and involved filter that typically fits under your sink, according to 2020 research from Duke University

The Public Health and Safety Organization has a list of water treatment units and the claims the company makes about what they can remove. And as the CDC says, the best way to figure out what a home water filter filters out is to look for the NSF certification on the label. 

While water is one main source of potential exposure to PFAS (since we need to drink it every day to live), drinking more purified water isn't the only way you can reduce exposure to PFAS. Because the chemicals are found in nonstick or repellent materials, switching out nonstick pans for stainless steel or cast iron cookware may also reduce the risk. You can also try not to use water-resistant sprays, stain-resistant carpets and anything else that might be coated with those chemicals. 

PFAS may be intentionally added to cosmetic products to "condition and smooth the skin," according to the US Food and Drug Administration, so some types of makeup, shaving cream, lotion and more products may contain them. What's more, things as simple as dental floss, shampoo and to-go containers all may expose people to PFAS, which are widespread in the US.

If you're interested in doing a deeper dive into cosmetic or personal care ingredients, the EWG has a page where you can look up personal care products and see how their ingredients are rated for potential contamination concerns. But when doing a deep dive into ingredients like this, it's always important to keep in mind the benefits of the products you're using -- reducing the risk of skin cancer with sunscreen, for one example, or treating painfully dry skin with lotion. 

The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.