PFAS

What are PFAS?

Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are a large family of human-made chemicals in use since the 1950s to make a wide variety of stain-resistant, water-resistant, and non-stick consumer products. Some examples include food packaging, outdoor clothing, and non-stick pans. PFAS also have many industrial uses because of their special properties. In Washington State, PFAS have been used in certain types of firefighting foams utilized by the U.S. military, local fire departments, and airports.

Some of the most common and best studied PFAS, such as perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonic acid (PFOS), have been removed from most products because of health and environmental concerns. These long-lasting chemicals continue to be released into our environment from older products and discarded materials. Newer PFAS compounds have replaced older PFAS compounds and at least some appear to pose similar problems.

Watch the video “What are PFAS?” from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency to learn more.

Why are we concerned about PFAS?

PFAS are a public health concern because they:

PFAS have been discovered above recommended federal and state levels in the drinking water supplies of millions of Americans, including in Washington State. In humans, it can take many years for PFAS to leave our bodies. As a result, exposure to levels above recommended limits over time may lead to harmful health effects.

What are the health concerns with PFAS?

Scientists are still studying how PFAS affect people's health. Much of what we know comes from toxicity testing in laboratory animals. In people, higher exposure to certain PFAS may lead to:

Learn more:

How are people exposed to PFAS?

People are primarily exposed to PFAS by:

People can also be exposed by:

Most people living in the United States have some amount of these chemicals in their blood.  People in communities with local PFAS contamination in their drinking water or food often have higher exposure and may be more likely to have health impacts. Children ages 0-5 years, and people who are pregnant, planning to become pregnant, or breastfeeding are considered to be more vulnerable to health impacts from these chemicals.

Learn more:

How can I reduce my exposure?

PFAS and Drinking Water

How do PFAS get into drinking water?

PFAS can get into drinking water if they are made, used, disposed of, or spilled near your water source. Because PFAS do not break down easily, they may remain in water supplies for many years.

 

Landfills, firefighting foam, manufacturing, wastewater, and land applications are sources of PFAS in drinking water.

Copyrighted image used with permission from the PFAS Testing Network.

Are there federal drinking water standards for PFAS?

No, PFAS are not yet regulated under the Safe Drinking Water Act or other major U.S. environmental laws such as the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is in the process of developing an enforceable federal safety standard for two of the most common PFAS, perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonic acid (PFOS). This process is expected to finish in 2023.

Some states, including Washington, have adopted their own public health advice and enforceable standards for PFOA, PFOS, and other PFAS in drinking water and other sources. Learn more about the states regulation of PFAS.

What are Washington State's PFAS drinking water standards?

In 2021, the Washington State Board of Health adopted State Action Levels (SALs) for five PFAS.

  • A SAL is a level that is set to protect human health and is based on the best available science at the time.
  • The new state rule requires all community and nontransient-noncommunity public water systems to test for PFAS. Transient public water systems may also be required to test for PFAS if contamination is discovered nearby. Under the state rules, over 2,600 Washington water systems will test for PFAS in the next 3 years.
  • If water systems find PFAS in their water, they must notify their customers and do follow-up testing. Community water systems that find any level of PFAS must include the test results in their annual water quality report.
  • All drinking water testing data on PFAS will be reported to DOH and made publicly available.
  • In addition to these required actions, SALs provide advice for when to take action to lower PFAS in drinking water for long-term consumption (over years). This advice should also be followed over shorter periods of time (months) for sensitive groups, such as infants and people who are pregnant or breastfeeding.
  • We do not have enough information to recommend SALs for every type of PFAS that may be in drinking water. However, technologies that remove PFAS with SALs will remove many other PFAS from water.
  • One of the challenges of providing health guidance for PFAS is that these chemicals are still being researched. Health advice is updated as new science becomes available.
Type of PFAS 2021 WA SALs
PFOA 10 ppt*
PFOS 15 ppt*
PFNA 9 ppt*
PFHxS 65 ppt*
PFBS 345 ppt*

*ppt = parts per trillion or ng/L.

What are EPA's health advisory levels for PFAS in drinking water?

EPA developed Health Advisory Levels (HALs) for several PFAS to provide guidance until enforceable safety standards are adopted under the Safe Drinking Water Act. The HALs are health goals that help guide safety decisions when a contaminant occurs in drinking water. HALs represent an amount of each PFAS in drinking water that is almost certain not to cause harmful human health effects if consumed over a lifetime. HALs are not regulations and are not enforceable. They are based on the best available science at the time and can change as the science is updated.

In 2016, EPA established a lifetime health advisory level (HAL) of 70 parts per trillion for PFOA and PFOS combined in drinking water. The military has followed this federal health advisory at and near military bases in Washington State.

In June 2022, EPA released new HALs for four PFAS in drinking water.

Type of PFAS 2016 EPA HALs 2022 EPA HALs
PFOA 70 ppt* 0.004 ppt*
PFOS 70 ppt* 0.02 ppt*
PFBS -- 2,000 ppt*
GenX -- 10 ppt*

*ppt = parts per trillion or ng/L.

  • The updated HALs for PFOA and PFOS are temporary values because they are being reviewed by experts. EPA now considers any detectable levels of PFOA and PFOS in drinking water a potential concern over a lifetime of exposure.
  • We aren't currently aware of any GenX chemicals in Washington state water systems.
Washington response to EPA 2022 HALs
  • Washington State Department of Health (DOH) is updating our educational materials to spread awareness of the EPA health advisories.
  • DOH will consider whether to recommend a change to our SAL values once EPA concludes its expert review process, finalizes the numbers, and proposes their safety standard for PFOA and PFOS in drinking water (all expected by the end of 2022). Changing a SAL would require rulemaking by the State Board of Health.
  • Until then, DOH will continue to regulate PFAS in our public water systems based on our existing SALs.
  • EPA is only part way through a multi-year process of setting a drinking water safety standard for PFAS in drinking water. The new EPA HALs indicate that EPA’s public health goals for PFOS and PFOA are likely to be at or nearly zero. In these situations, EPA will propose a standard that is as close to the health goal as technically feasible while taking costs and benefits into consideration. Balancing costs against the expected benefits allows the Agency to keep costs in proportion to the health benefits expected. EPA expects to propose a drinking water standard for at least PFOA and PFOS by the end of 2022 and adopt a standard by the end of 2023.
How do I know if my drinking water contains PFAS?

If you get your water from a public water system, ask your water system if they have tested for PFAS. Many water systems in Washington have voluntarily tested for PFAS and many more will test under the 2021 Washington State Board of Health rule requiring public water systems to test for PFAS and share the results.

If you have a private well, you can test your water for PFAS. This can cost you about $300-$600. Ask your local government if PFAS have been discovered near your well. Being close to a contaminated site doesn’t necessarily mean there are PFAS in your drinking water, but it may help you decide whether or not to test.

Water testing is the only way to know for sure if PFAS are present. You can’t see, taste, or smell PFAS in your water.

How do I test my water for PFAS?

Testing your water involves collecting a water sample and sending it to a laboratory that can measure PFAS in drinking water.

If you choose to test your water, find a lab that has been accredited (verified) by the Washington State Department of Ecology as able to test for PFAS in drinking water. There are two test methods. EPA method 533 tests for 24 PFAS. EPA method 531.7 tests for 18 PFAS. Both will detect the five PFAS with a SAL.

Learn more about EPA's PFAS Drinking Water Laboratory Methods.

Accredited Labs that Test Public Drinking Water Samples for PFAS 331-700 (PDF)

Public Health Advice

How do I minimize my exposure to PFAS in drinking water?

If there are PFAS above a recommended limit in your drinking water, you can reduce your exposure by installing a water filter that removes PFAS or by using an alternate source of water for cooking, drinking, and preparing infant formula.

This is especially important for people who are pregnant or breastfeeding and formula-fed infants, as these groups drink more water than most people. These groups are also in life stages where they may be especially sensitive to harmful health effects of PFAS.

If you get your water from a public water system, contact your water utility to see what is being done to address PFAS.  Until action is taken, use of a home water filter or bottled water can reduce your exposure.

If you get your water from a private well.

  • You can install and maintain a home filter to reduce PFAS levels in your water.
  • Alternately, you may be able to connect to a nearby public water system or other well that doesn’t have PFAS.
  • contact your county health department to explore other options.
Can I boil my water to get rid of PFAS?

No, you cannot boil PFAS out of water.

Is bottled water a good option for alternate water?

Bottled water can be a good short-term solution until a filter or other solution is in place. For long-term use, bottled water is not as regulated as tap water for many other contaminants and usually ends up costing more than installing and maintaining a filter. Compared to tap water, bottled water also has higher environmental impacts linked to trucking the bottled water to market and making and disposing the plastic bottles.

If you use bottled water as an alternate water source, look for brands that have been purified with water filtration. PFAS have been found in some brands of bottled water.

The FDA has no enforceable standards for PFAS in bottled water. The International Bottled Water Association (IBWA) states that it requires its members to test their bottled water products annually for PFAS, and to limit PFAS in bottled water to 5 parts per trillion (ppt) for any one PFAS or 10 ppt for more than one PFAS. These limits would meet the Washington State SALs but might not prevent sale of bottled water that exceeds new EPA health advisory levels for PFOA and PFOS.   

Not all bottled water companies are members of the IBWA. You can check bottledwater.org to learn if your bottled water company is a member of the IBWA.

Can I bathe if there are PFAS in my tap water?

Yes. PFAS don’t get through the skin very well, so showering or bathing are not a significant source of PFAS exposure. If you are still concerned, you can reduce exposure by:

Can I wash my dishes and do laundry if there are PFAS in my tap water?

Yes. Doing laundry or washing dishes is not a significant source of PFAS exposure. If you are still concerned, you can reduce exposure by wearing rubber gloves while hand-washing dishes or clothing.

Should I still breastfeed my baby if there are PFAS in my tap water?

If PFAS are above health advisory levels in your drinking water, we recommend that you install a filter or switch to an alternative source of drinking water and continue to breastfeed your baby. In Washington State, state action levels (SALs) were set specifically to protect breastfed infants.

The American Academy of Pediatrics states that: “even though some environmental contaminants like PFAS pollutants pass to the infant through breast milk, the advantages of breastfeeding greatly outweigh the potential risks in nearly every circumstance.”

Talk to your health care provider if you have concerns about PFAS and breastfeeding.

Learn more about breastfeeding.

Should I use my tap water to mix infant formula if there is PFAS in my water?

If PFAS are above recommended limits in your tap water, we recommend that you install a filter or switch to an alternative source of water to mix your infant’s formula.

Should I have my blood tested for PFAS?

Many people who learn their drinking water contains or contained PFAS ask if they should get a blood test. This is a personal decision to make with your health care provider. Here's what the test can and can't tell you:

PFAS Blood Testing: What you need to know, PFAS REACH May 2022

National Academies of Science, PFAS Guidance Highlights, August 2022

Can I water my fruit and vegetable garden with PFAS-contaminated water and eat that produce?

Limited information suggests that eating home-raised fruits and vegetables is not a significant source of PFAS when the garden water meets federal or state advisory levels for PFAS in drinking water. We’re still learning about how much PFAS garden vegetables might absorb when water levels of PFAS are much higher.

In general, PFAS from soil or irrigation water can be absorbed through the roots of plants. Some types of PFAS tend to stay in the roots, while other types of PFAS more easily get into shoots, leaves, and fruits. PFAS levels in fruits and vegetables are influenced by plant type, soil conditions, and the amount of PFAS in irrigation water.

If you are concerned, here are some ways to minimize exposure:

  • Wash or scrub all dirt off produce before eating to avoid swallowing soil. PFAS may be in soil particles.
  • Peel and wash root vegetables before eating.
  • Add clean compost to your garden soil. Increasing the organic content of your garden soil can reduce the amount of PFAS your plants pick up from the soil.
  • Use rainwater or install a filter to remove PFAS from garden irrigation water.

There are no current standards for allowable PFAS in commercial produce. If you raise and sell crops, contact the Washington State Department of Agriculture for their most updated guidance; or email foodsafety@agr.wa.gov or call 360-902-1876.

What about eating fish?
Is it safe to eat meat, eggs, and milk from animals that have PFAS in their drinking water?

Not necessarily. If consumed, Some PFAS can be absorbed by chickens, meat, and dairy animals, and transferred into their eggs, meat, and milk. Regular consumption of these animal products could result in elevated exposure for an individual or family.

There are no PFAS regulations or advisories to guide consumption of animal products. However, you can reduce your exposure if you:

  • Switch your animals to clean water or install a filter to remove PFAS from their drinking water. This allows the animals to begin getting rid of the PFAS from their bodies, eggs, and milk.
  • Avoid eating organ meats. PFAS can build up in the liver, kidney, and blood.

There are no current standards for allowable PFAS in commercial animal byproducts. If you raise animals and sell meat eggs or dairy products, contact the Washington Department of Agriculture for guidance. Or email foodsafety@agr.wa.gov or call 360-902-1876.

What Our State is Doing to Address PFAS Contamination

State Standards for PFAS in Drinking Water

The State Board of Health adopted standards for PFAS in Group A public drinking water systems in October 2021. To support this process, the Department of Health reviewed the most current science and recommended state action levels on five PFAS compounds to protect public health. The new rule also requires monitoring, recordkeeping and reporting, follow-up actions, and other associated requirements for PFAS. For more information go to our PFAS in Drinking Water 2021 Rulemaking Documents webpage.

Statewide Action Plan for PFAS

The Departments of Ecology and Health developed a statewide Chemical Action Plan (CAP) for PFAS to address human exposure and environmental contamination. The plan was developed with broad stakeholder input. It summarizes what we know about PFAS contamination in Washington State and recommends actions to address contamination and human exposure. Recommendations include expanded testing and mitigation for PFAS in drinking water, reduction of PFAS uses that release PFAS into food, drinking water, or the environment, and additional evaluation of PFAS in waste streams (landfill leachate, biosolids, sewage treatment outfalls, etc.) Visit the Department of Ecology's website to learn more about this work.

State Ban on PFAS in Firefighting Foam

In 2018, the Washington State legislature restricted the use of PFAS in firefighting foam and banned fire training with PFAS firefighting foams. The law also requires reporting of PFAS in firefighter’s personal protective equipment. (RCW 70A.400Firefighting foam is a suspected source of some drinking water contamination found near airports, military bases, and fire training areas. The state is helping fire departments and other businesses safely dispose of existing stockpiles of PFAS foams. Visit the Department of Ecology's website to learn more about this work.

State Ban on PFAS in Food Contact Papers

In 2018, the Washington State Legislature restricted use of PFAS in food contact papers and paperboard, once safer alternatives are identified (RCW 70A.222). The Department of Ecology has so far identified safer alternatives for nine types of food contact packaging and continues to look for safer alternatives for other types. PFAS will be restricted in food wrappers and liners, plates, food boats, and pizza boxes starting in February 2023. In 2024, PFAS will be restricted in paper bowls, bags and sleeves, trays, open top containers like cups, and containers that close like clamshells. Visit the Department of Ecology's website to learn more.

Safer Products for Washington

In 2019, the Washington State legislature authorized the Department of Ecology, in consultation with Department of Health, to further restrict PFAS and other harmful chemical classes in consumer products. This law outlined a five-year process to identify problem products, safer alternatives, and regulatory solutions. Currently the state is taking steps to restrict PFAS in carpets and indoor furnishings and in after-market sprays for waterproofing and stain-proofing fabrics. In 2022, the state legislature added firefighter personal protective equipment and PFAS-containing products identified in the PFAS CAP as priority products to be considered for restrictions or reporting requirements (RCW 70A.350). Learn more at Safer Products for Washington.