How to Reduce Your Exposure to PFAS, Part Three: Drinking Water


Graphic with sky and trees that explains PFAS

PFAS chemicals are common in our environment, and they can affect our health. Almost everyone has been exposed to PFAS in our air, water, and soil, and from using products that have PFAS.

We’ve explained how to reduce your exposure to PFAS in locally caught fish and products we use every day.

Now let’s look at drinking water. We’ll talk about how to reduce your exposure to PFAS in drinking water and what experts are doing to set safety standards for these chemicals in our water supplies.

PFAS are being detected in more and more water supplies

PFAS in drinking water is making the news lately, but how do you know if they’re in your water?

If you’re on public water: Madison Water Utility began voluntarily testing years ago and tests two times a year. You can look up the water quality at your address, including PFAS, on Madison Water Utility’s website. If you want to learn more about what Madison Water Utility is doing about PFAS, visit their PFAS webpage.

Don’t live in Madison? Other communities in Dane County have tested their water through the DNR. Visit the DNR website and click “PFAS Sampling Info” under “Layer Controls.” Click on the circle next to the name of the municipality to find out the results. Contact your municipality if you want more information.

If you get your water from a private well: It’s important to test your well regularly for all contaminants, and PFAS is no exception. In our next blog post, we’ll tell you how to test your well and what to do if results are concerning. Subscribe to our blog now so you don’t miss it!

You can reduce your exposure to PFAS in the water you drink

There are steps you can take to reduce your exposure to PFAS in your water. Use a granular activated carbon or reverse osmosis filter, or get your water from a treatment system that uses one. Look for systems certified by ANSI/NSF Standards 53 or 58. This website has a list. Use them to filter your water used for:

  • Drinking
  • Cooking
  • Making baby formula or food
  • Washing fruits/veggies
  • Brushing teeth
  • Feeding pets

What about drinking bottled water? The Food and Drug Administration hasn’t set limits on PFAS in bottled water. Brands who belong to the International Bottled Water Association test their water for PFAS each year. Look for bottled water labeled with the NSF or IBWA seal. If the label says “purified,” it’s probably filtered through reverse osmosis. This could mean it has less PFAS in the water.

Want to dive deeper to understand the technology behind testing and drinking water standards for PFAS?

Keep reading!

There are different groups of PFAS chemicals

There are thousands of different PFAS chemicals. Only a small number of them have been well studied.

PFOA and PFOS were once two of the most widely used kinds of PFAS. As we learned about their negative health effects, PFOA and PFOS were replaced with other kinds of PFAS, like GenX and PFBS. However, PFAS chemicals don’t break down easily. So even though PFOA and PFOS were phased out, they’re still out there in our environment. And unfortunately, we’ve since learned that the newer chemicals can also affect our health and our environment.

Technology is advancing for measuring PFAS in drinking water

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) created methods of testing drinking water for 33 different PFAS. PFAS in drinking water are measured in parts per trillion. So just how much is 1 part per trillion? It’s equal to 1 drop of water in 20 Olympic sized swimming pools. The EPA is working to develop ways to detect PFAS chemicals at even lower levels than currently exist, but testing is complicated and expensive. Not all labs that test drinking water are able to test for PFAS.

National and Local Drinking water standards for PFAS are being created

National advisories and regulations

In 2022, the EPA set temporary lifetime advisories for PFOA, PFOS, GenX chemicals, and PFBS to protect health. Advisories tell water system operators what level of a chemical is considered safe, but advisories can’t legally make water system operators test or treat water.

In March of this year, the EPA proposed a national drinking water regulation for six PFAS. It should be finalized by early 2024. When it is, public water systems must monitor drinking water, tell you if levels exceed maximum contaminant levels, and treat your water if they do.

The maximum contaminant levels of PFAS chemicals they propose are:

  • PFOA - 4 parts per trillion
  • PFOS - 4 parts per trillion
  • HFPO-DA (GenX) - 10 parts per trillion
  • PFBS - 2,000 parts per trillion

Wisconsin has legal limits on PFAS in drinking water

The EPA lets states set and enforce drinking water standards that are stricter than national regulations. In 2022, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) adopted the EPA’s original 2016 advisory of 70 parts per trillion combined total for PFOA and PFOS as a drinking water standard. These are legal, enforceable standards. All public drinking water systems in Wisconsin are expected to have monitoring in place by the end of 2023.

The DNR also recognized that groundwater is the main source of drinking water in our state. Since there are no federal advisories for PFAS in groundwater, the DNR asked the Wisconsin Department of Health Services (DHS) to create a groundwater standard for Wisconsin. DHS has made their recommendations, and the DNR is now working through the rule making process. 

Keep your eye on the news later this year for more

Federal regulations on PFAS in drinking water are coming later this year. Water utilities would then be required to test for them, notify you of results, and take action. In the meantime, you can learn more about PFAS in your water and make changes to reduce your exposure. Any time you can reduce your exposure, whether it’s drinking water, fish from local waterways, or everyday products, the better!

This content is free for use with credit to Public Health Madison & Dane County .

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