PFAS and Your Water Supply
“PFAS” is an abbreviation that stands for per – and polyfluoroalkyl substances. These are a family of approximately 5,000 human-made chemicals dating back to the 1940s that include perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS), which are two of the most widely used and studied chemicals in the PFAS group.
PFOA is a synthetic, fully fluorinated organic acid; it is used in a variety of consumer products and in the production of fluoropolymers, and it is generated as a degradation product of other perfluorinated compounds. Because of strong carbon-fluorine bonds, PFOA is stable for metabolic and environmental degradation.
PFOA is one of a large group of perfluoroalkyl substances (PFASs) that are used to make products more resistant to stains, grease, and water. These compounds have been widely found in consumer and industrial products, as well as in food items. Major U.S. manufacturers voluntarily have agreed to phase out the production of PFOA by the end of 2015.
What are the sources of PFAS?
PFOA and PFOS contamination in drinking water is thought to stem from two main sources: factories that formerly manufactured or used the chemicals and locations, including military bases, where they were used as firefighting foams. In addition, PFOA and PFOS may also end up in the environment as consumer products containing fluorochemicals, such as stain-resistant fabric or broken-down grease-proof food wrappers. Both PFOA and PFOS are found at very low levels in the blood of the general population across the U.S., according to the EPA.
Common uses of these chemicals are included in nonstick cookware, food packaging, building and exterior use products, water-repellent clothing, fire-fighting foams, and stain-proof carpeting.
The use of these chemicals has resulted in PFAS being released into the air, water, and soil across the globe. While many PFAS have been phased out of use in the United States, they are considered “forever chemicals” because they don’t break down readily in the environment over time.
Are there health effects related to PFAS exposure?
Research on the potential health effects of PFAS is ongoing. Exposure does not necessarily mean that a person will get sick or experience an adverse health effect. EPA’s health advisories are based on the best available peer-reviewed studies of the effects of PFOA and PFOS. These studies indicate that exposure to PFOA and PFOS over certain levels may result in adverse health effects, including developmental effects on fetuses during pregnancy or on breastfed infants (e.g., low birth weight, accelerated puberty, skeletal variations), cancer (e.g., testicular, kidney), liver effects (e.g., tissue damage), immune effects (e.g., antibody production and immunity), thyroid effects and other effects (e.g., cholesterol changes).
Are PFAS levels regulated?
To provide Americans, including the most sensitive populations, with a margin of protection from a lifetime of exposure to PFOA and PFOS from drinking water, the EPA established health advisory levels.
In 2016, the US EPA set Lifetime Health Advisory Levels for PFOA and PFOS combined at 70 parts per trillion (ppt) in drinking water. In 2022, the US EPA issued new advisory levels for PFOS (0.02 ppt) and PFOA (0.004 ppt). As a frame of reference, one ppt is roughly the equivalent of one drop in 20 Olympic-sized swimming pools.
The health advisories are intended to provide guidance to public water supply systems and public health officials when contamination situations arise. The guidance includes limits in drinking water below which health effects are not expected to occur. Lifetime health advisory levels are only guidance for evaluating the prevalence and occurrence of unregulated drinking water contaminants and are not enforceable. The USEPA could have Maximum Contamination Limits (MCL) for some PFAS compounds in the near future. MCLs are enforceable.
Is there PFAS in Drinking Water Provided by Lake County Public Works (LCPW)?
LCPW customers receive their drinking water supply from either Lake Michigan or LCPW Public Works-operated wells.
- Lake Michigan Water
Lake Michigan water is sourced through The Central Joint Action Water Agency (CLCJAWA), and they have been monitoring for PFAS since 2006. They have detected trace amounts of PFOA and PFOS at approximately 2 parts per trillion (ppt) each.
- LCPW Well Water
LCPW has been testing for PFAS in our well supply since 2016 and has not detected levels of PFAS in any of the well water sources above 2 ppt. Lower levels of PFAS are currently undetectable by modern laboratory methods.
What is Lake County Doing?
Lake County will continue to follow recommendations from the US EPA and closely monitor the latest health advisory-based guidance as well as any new MCL that may be issued. We also will continue our PFAS monitoring program through routine sampling.
Providing our customers with the highest quality of drinking water is a top priority of LCPW. The department will continue to be proactive with all emerging contaminants and work with state regulators and our team to ensure that this goal is continuously achieved.
Where can I find more information?
The US EPA and the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency provide information on PFAS and the latest research and regulatory developments. LCPW is following the issue closely and will continue adhering to guidance from the Illinois EPA and US EPA.