PFAS Health Effects & Ways to Reduce Exposure
Perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are a large group of human-made chemicals that are fire resistant, and repel oil, stains, grease, and water. They do not change or break down easily. As a result, they are very widespread in the environment and can be found in air, water, and soil. Experts are concerned by the potential effects of high amounts of PFAS on human health.
PFOA and PFOS were two of the most widely used PFAS chemicals. As understanding about the impacts of these chemicals increased, in recent years, PFOA were replaced with GenX chemicals, and PFOS were replaced with PFBS. These newer chemicals can also impact health.
How PFAS Affect Health
Research is ongoing to understand the effects PFAS have on health . Some PFAS have been studied more than others (specifically PFOA and PFOS). Scientists are still learning about the health effects of exposures to combinations of PFAS.
Research suggests that exposure to PFAS increases risk of several harmful health conditions .
For PFOA/PFOS, studies show effects on the immune system, cardiovascular system, human development, and cancer. They also show a lower response to vaccines in children.
For GenX chemicals, studies on animals show health effects on the liver, kidney, and immune system, as well as developmental effects and cancer.
For PFBS, studies on animals show health effects on the thyroid, reproductive organs and tissues, developing fetus, and kidney.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) updated their drinking water health advisories for PFAS in June 2022. These are lifetime advisories to protect all people from negative health effects from exposure throughout their life to PFAS, including drinking water. The advisories are not drinking water standards or regulations. They are made to help inform you of new scientific information on the health effects of these chemicals and provide additional information to guide the development of future goals.
How People are Exposed to PFAS
Almost everyone has been exposed to PFAS from environmental exposures or using products that have PFAS.
PFAS are in firefighting foams, stain repellants, nonstick cookware, waterproof clothing and shoes, fast food wrappers, personal care products, and many other consumer goods. Although some PFAS are no longer used, they can still be found in the environment because these chemicals do not break down easily.
Because PFAS are so widely used, they are also in our lakes and streams, fish, and drinking water supplies.
Learn about PFAS in Madison and Dane County.
- Reduce Use of Products that Contain PFAS
- Reduce PFAS Levels in the Water You Drink
- Follow Guidelines for Eating Fish
- Protect Your Health After Being in Lakes and Streams
- Continue Breastfeeding
Thousands of PFAS chemicals are in production across the United States. Some PFAS chemicals are no longer made in the United States but are still produced in other countries and can be imported into the United States in consumer goods.
To reduce PFAS exposure:
- Check product labels for ingredients that include the words "fluoro" or "perfluoro."
- Be aware of packaging for foods that contain grease-repellent coatings. Examples include microwave popcorn bags and fast food wrappers and boxes.
- Avoid stain-resistance treatments. Choose furniture and carpets that aren’t marketed as “stain-resistant,” and don’t apply finishing treatments to these or other items. Avoid clothing, luggage, camping, and sport equipment that were treated for water or stain resistance.
- Avoid or reduce use of non-stick cookware. Stop using products if non-stick coatings show signs of wear.
Public water systems are not currently required to test for PFAS and many in Dane County do not. Madison Water Utility does test, and PFAS levels are below the current Wisconsin recommended health advisories. Contact your municipality if you would like to know about PFAS testing in your community.
To reduce exposure to PFAS and protect health, reduce or eliminate the use of drinking water containing PFAS or supplement it with an alternative source.
Alternate sources of drinking water include:
- Water from a source that has been tested for PFAS and has levels below the Wisconsin Recommended Groundwater Enforcement Standard level of 20 parts per trillion
- Water from a treatment system certified by ANSI/NSF Standards 53 or 58 to reduce PFAS.
- Bottled water that is labeled with the NSF and/or IBWA seal.
Both granular activated carbon and reverse osmosis filters can reduce PFAS in water. When amounts of PFAS in your water are higher than the Wisconsin Recommended Groundwater Enforcement Standard level of 20 parts per trillion, we recommend the use of a filtration system for:
- making baby formula or food
- washing fruits or vegetables
- brushing teeth
- feeding pets
The Department of Natural Resources tested fish from the Yahara River chain of lakes in 2020. Test results showed PFOS levels that are above levels safe for health. Following the fish eating guidelines for Dane County will reduce PFAS/PFOA exposure.
In 2022, tests of fish from Black Earth Creek showed elevated levels of PFAS. The DNR has updated their guidance to include fish from Black Earth Creek.
Touching lake, river, or stream water that has PFAS is not an immediate health concern. You should avoid drinking or accidentally swallowing water. You should also avoid touching foam on the water that might be contaminated with PFAS. After being in water or touching foam, wash hands and rinse pets to prevent swallowing PFAS that may be on skin or fur.
Foam that has PFAS…
- Can have bright white coloring
- Tends to pile up like shaving cream
- Can be sticky
- May blow inland and collect on lake shores and river banks
- Is usually lightweight
Naturally occurring foam…
- Is off-white and/or brown
- Often accumulates in bays, where there is circular movement of water, or river blockages
- May smell earthy or fishy
Based on current research, the benefits of breastfeeding outweigh the risks for infants exposed to PFAS in breast milk. PFAS can be passed to a baby through breast milk. Parents should talk to their doctor if they have concerns about breastfeeding and PFAS.
Get More Information From Other Sources
Learn more about PFAS
- PFAS and Their Health Effects, Agency for Toxic Substances & Disease Registry
- Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS), Wisconsin Department of Health Services
- PFAS FAQs, Agency for Toxic Substances & Disease Registry
Information from Local Agencies
- Dane County Regional Airport
- Wisconsin National Guard
- Madison Water Utility
- Wisconsin Department of Health Services
- Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources
- Madison Metropolitan Sewerage District