The topic of safe drinking water is constantly being discussed and reevaluated. Now, more than ever, people heave become increasingly aware of the need to protect this valuable resource. Polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are manmade chemicals that have been used by industry, and in our homes for almost a century. Even with new regulations, these harmful toxins have been accumulating over all this time and don’t breakdown easily.
With this undeniable threat to our health, we need to find an effective means of ensuring that we have safe, clean water in our homes. Reverse Osmosis (RO) is widely considered to be the best method of filtering water. We’ve set about investigating if this really is the best solution. In this article I intend to answer a very important question: Does reverse osmosis remove PFAS?
While the efficacy of RO for removing PFAS is the prevailing topic for the conversation, there are a lot of facts about these (and other) toxins that can help us understand the problem and, hopefully, find a long term solution. We should start by gaining a better understanding of PFAS and how it affects the water supply.
What is PFAS?
PFAS consist of thousands of manufactured chemicals that have been in use since the 1940s. These toxins are often called “forever chemicals” as they take a very long time to break down. This means that even if alternative (less harmful) products replace PFAS, their effects will still be felt for a long time to come.
The impact of PFAS is of such great concern that the North Carolina State University has addressed the issue by establishing a Superfund Research Program Center for Human Health Effects of PFAS. They have identified over 5,000 known compounds that can be found in a diverse array of common products from non-stick cookware and cosmetics to firefighting foams.
These chemicals are used primarily to improve water, stain, and grease resistance in both industrial and consumer products.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), PFAS are present in many common areas of everyday life:
Since PFAS are present in so many products used every day, it is virtually impossible to avoid them. We will, inevitably come into contact with, and consume PFAS at some point. Though, we can tolerate acceptable levels of PFAS without it becoming a health risk. The EPA health advisory states that 70 parts per trillion (PPT) of PFAS in drinking water can be considered safe. That’s a very small amount. It is, therefore, advisable to avoid consuming PFAS contaminated water and food.
Most scientists agree that reverse osmosis is one of the most effective methods for removing toxins from water. Whole house and point of use RO systems are common in homes throughout the US. Traditionally, these filtration systems have been installed to combat common chemicals, like chlorine. In conjunction with other stages of filtration, like sediment and activated carbon filters, multi-stage RO systems can remove over 99% of all contaminants found in city and well water supplies. So, what about PFAS? Can RO filters effectively remove these harmful compounds.
A reverse osmosis filtration system works by forcing pressurized water through an incredibly fine membrane. While RO membranes differ, they will typically remove particles down 0.02 micron. This means that just about all dissolved salts and other contaminants are trapped inside the membrane. A backwash process then flushes these toxins from the filter membrane and disposes of the contaminated wastewater through a drain. This makes them highly effective and the filters last quite a long time.
According to EPA scientists, Reverse Osmosis filters can remove about 90% of PFAS, This may seem less that desirable. We’d obviously prefer 100% PFAS removal. Though, with a removal rate of 90%, the filtered water should meet the 70 PPT safety threshold set by the EPA.
There are several other filters that can also be highly effective at removing PFAS. Some are far superior to an RO membrane in this regard. These filters can easily be incorporated as part of a multi-stage Revers osmosis filtration system. In fact, they are quite common in many systems that can be bought from water filter retailers.
Ion exchange resin filters are fantastic at removing PFAS from drinking water. Positively charged anion exchange resins (AER) are used to remove negatively charged toxins, like PFAS. These filters can remove 100% of PFAS chemicals. Granulated activated carbon (GAC) and powdered activated carbon (PAC) filters can also remove up to 100% of PFAS.
It’s important to realize that PFAS (and other contaminants) accumulate in resin and carbon filters. This means that filters will need to be replaced more frequently if high levels of PFAS chemicals are present in the water supply. Some of these filters may use a backwash system to regenerate the media, but this will increase your water usage. For the most effective and efficient removal of toxins like PFAS, it is best to us RO membrane, activated carbon, and ionic exchange resin filters. By using multiple stages, the filters are not working as hard and will last longer. It also ensures that you have maximum contaminant removal.
Since PFAS is probably not the only contaminant that you want removed, using multiple filtration media helps cover the full spectrum of harmful toxins in the water. These could be hard minerals, insecticides, herbicides, organic and inorganic compounds, and many others. It would depend on the quality of the water supplied to your home. Putting together the perfect RO system for the water entering your home, will makes sure that your water is safe, tastes great, and is free from nasty odors.
It is always a good idea to have your water tested to get an accurate analysis of what contaminants affect the water in your home. By knowing what you need to filter from your water, you can specify a system that correctly meets your requirements, without wasting money on filters that you might not need.
Having the best RO combo filter means that you can use tap water for drinking, cooking, and cleaning with complete confidence.
The Downside to Using Reverse Osmosis Filters
Knowing that A quality, well thought out RO filter system is the best way to provide safe, clean water to your home is great news, especially if your concerned about PFAS. However, there are a few reasons why some people are less enthusiastic about reverse osmosis filers for the home.
What are the Health Effects of PFAS?
Because of the extent of the effects of PFAS on the human body, several studies have been conducted into health risks associated with PFAS in humans and animals. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) compiled a comprehensive report, analyzing various studies from around the world into the effects of PFAS on humans. The report, entitled Human health effects of drinking water exposures to per- and poly-fluoroalkyl 8 substances provides one of the best overviews of the research that has done in this field.
They tested people in high risk areas, like those close to chemical manufacturing facilities where PFAS chemicals are used, as well as airports and military bases which use PFAS firefighting foam. I have summarized the conclusions of the study.
PFAS chemicals remain in the body for a long time. This means that the health of people exposed to PFAS will vary greatly. Depending on the amount of PFAS in the water in a particular area, and the amount of time an individual has been exposed to PFAS chemicals, people will experience different symptoms and the severity will differ.
Health Effects of PFAS in Children
The CDC document suggests that more research is needed into effects of PFAS on the health of children. Results have not been consistent in the groups that have been tested. However, the effects mentions have been prevalent in most cases and should be considered a genuine health concern.
Health Effects of PFAS in Adults
In some instances, information on the effects of PFAS on cancer and other adult diseases is limited. Regardless, the following conclusions can be drawn for the available information.
PFAS can affect in adults in the following ways:
It is clear that a lot more research is needed to determine the health effects of PFAS in humans. With the information currently available, many medical conditions have been associated with the consumption of PFAS. It is known to affect renal function, leading to the conclusion that PFAS can be responsible for kidney disease.
It also affects lipids, leading high cholesterol and coronary disease. Hormones are influenced and it appears to be a contributing factor for many types of cancer. There is great concern that PFAS affects bone health, causing diseases like osteoporosis.
There can be no doubt that consuming PFAS contaminated water can lead to serious health conditions. Similarly, our food supply is also affected as animals that consume contaminated water will be affected by PFAS.
Areas Affected by PFAS
We tend to think of water contamination as a problem that mostly affects developing countries. Poor sanitation and infrastructure will invariably lead to water contamination. In the US, we expect agencies like the EPA to regulate and monitor our drinking water supplies and regulate these to ensure that our health is protected. Essentially, we rely on the water utilizes to provide us with clean safe drinking water.
Unfortunately, in the case of PFAS, the opposite is true. Because these chemicals are extensively used in industry, highly industrialized countries (like the US) are the worst affected areas. While the EPA has identified PFAS chemicals as a serious environmental and health hazard, it has been slow to react to the problem. This is further exasperated by the longevity of PFAS chemicals. Even after regulations are implemented to control these toxins, it takes a very long time for the effects to be noticed as the chemicals remain in the soil long after their use has been prohibited.
PFAS chemicals in many manufacturing industries. Over 200 applications have been identified with 64 separate categories. These include:
These are a but a few of the many industries that use PFAS chemicals. Essentially, these chemicals are everywhere. Apart from manufacturing plants that use PFAS, the use of PFAS for fire fighting is another great concern. Airports and military bases are constantly training and drilling personnel in the use of firefighting foams, making these high-risk areas for PFAS.
The areas that are affected by PFAS contamination continue to increase. The most recent data available (August 2021) has identified 2,854 locations in 50 states where PFAS contamination is prevalent. It would not be feasible to list all these locations here. If you want more information, you can view the PFAS contamination map on the EWG website. Here you can view the states, counties, and cities that are affected by PFAS contamination.
Highly industrialized areas, particularly in the Eastern United States, are greatly affected. Michigan has been singled out as the state with the highest levels of PFAS. The Mid-Ohio River Valley has also been identified as a high PFAS contamination area. Approximately 44-tons of PFAS are released into the air and into the Ohio River. California is also one of the high-risk areas.
Just about all Americans are exposed to PFAS, with 6.5 million experiencing health issues as a result. Since the practice of using PFAS chemicals is ongoing, the problem persist until something is done to combat the situation.