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Frequently Asked Questions about PFAS

What are PFAS?

These chemicals are an extensive family of more than 3,000 human-made substances that have commercially useful properties: they resist heat, oil, stains, grease, and water.

PFAS have been used since the 1950s in a wide range of products, including firefighting materials, non-stick cookware, stain resistant products for furniture and carpets, waterproofing for clothes and mattresses, food packaging, and personal care products. People regularly come into contact with these chemicals because of their everyday use.

Perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS) and (PFOA) were once the most commonly produced types of PFAS, and so scientists know the most about these two compounds. Because PFOS and PFOA don't break down in the environment and are a potential health concern, their production has been discontinued in the US. They have since been replaced by other PFAS compounds that don't accumulate to such high levels in wildlife and humans.

What Should I know About PFAS and Health?

PFAS chemicals have a range of toxicities and are globally distributed. Studies in the U.S. and worldwide have found small amounts of PFAS in blood samples from the general human population and in wildlife. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) is treating PFAS contamination as a public health concern.

Some animal studies show health effects from PFAS exposure, but human health studies are less conclusive. Some studies in humans have shown that PFAS at high levels may increase cholesterol levels; decrease how well the body responds to vaccines; increase the risk of thyroid disease; decrease fertility in women; increase the risk of serious conditions like high blood pressure and preeclampsia in pregnant women; and lower infant birth weights.

Studies do not clearly show whether PFAS cause cancer in people. Animal studies have shown PFOA and PFOS can cause cancer in the liver, testes, pancreas, and thyroid. However, the toxic effects of chemicals are not always the same across species, so the results of these studies may not accurately reflect effects of PFAS on humans. Further studies are needed to better understand the human health effects.

What Should I Know About PFAS and Drinking Water?

When PFAS are released into the environment (by spills or even through intended uses, such as fighting fires with PFAS-containing foams), they can enter rivers and groundwater that may be used as drinking water sources. These chemicals degrade very slowly, if at all, in the environment. In 2013-15, monitoring of large U.S. public water systems detected PFAS in 194 public water supplies. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) required this monitoring under the Unregulated Contaminant Monitoring Rule 3 (UCMR3). This rule requires large public water systems to periodically collect samples for selected unregulated substances in drinking water sources. UCMR3 was the third UCMR event and included six PFAS:

  • PFOS
  • PFOA
  • perfluorononanoic acid (PFNA)
  • perfluorohexanesulfonic acid (PFHxS)
  • perfluoroheptanoic acid (PFHpA)
  • perfluorobutanesulfonic acid (PFBS)
What Happens when PFAS get into the Environment?
Because of their stable chemical structure, PFAS do not easily break down. They travel rapidly to groundwater where they can spread both vertically and laterally. PFAS tend to build up in the food chain and have been found throughout the Arctic, in both animals and plant life, and are suspected to have migrated there through the ocean and the air.
How Do I Limit my Exposure?

It is nearly impossible to eliminate all exposure to PFAS since they are found at low levels in the environment, in consumer products, and food packaging. If the concentration of PFAS in your drinking water exceeds the DEC action level, the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services (DHSS) and DEC recommend that you stop drinking the water and stop using it to prepare baby formula, consider finding a clean water source for pets and other animals, and do not use the contaminated water when cooking or washing food because heating or boiling contaminated water does not remove PFAS.

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