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Frequently Asked Questions about PFAS

What are PFAS?

These chemicals are an extensive family of more than 5,000 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. In 2020, EPA finalized a Significant New Use Rule giving EPA the authority to review a list of products containing certain PFAS before they can be manufactured, sold, or imported in the US. 

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.

Our current knowledge about the health effects of PFAS comes mostly from animal toxicology studies and a smaller number of human epidemiology studies.

Studies using human cells and animals show that certain types of PFAS can lead to negative effects on several different body systems. However, animals and humans have important differences in physiology that can cause them to respond to chemicals differently. Also, laboratory experiments usually use doses of PFAS that are much higher than the average person is likely to experience, so scientists are still learning about the potential health effects of low-dose exposure to PFAS.

Research involving humans suggests that high levels of certain PFAS may lead to the following:

  • Increase cholesterol levels
  • Changes in liver enzymes
  • Small decreases in infant birth weights
  • Decrease vaccine response in children
  • Increase risk of high blood pressure or pre-eclampsia in pregnant women
  • Increase risk of kidney or testicular cancer

For additional information please visit Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry Per-and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS) and Your Health.

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)

The proposed fifth Unregulated Contaminant Monitoring Rule (UCMR 5) was signed by EPA on January 14, 2021. UCMR 5, as proposed, would require sample collection for 29 PFAS between 2023 and 2025. 

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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