PFAS: What They Are & How to Remove Them

A woman holding a glass of drinking water containing no PFAS.

Humans manufacture massive amounts of products that are quickly utilized and disposed of in local landfills. Many of these products contain various chemicals to make them more useful and provide them with a range of helpful characteristics. However, many of these chemicals are exceedingly problematic. They have proven themselves to be harmful to both people and the environment as a whole, especially over extended periods. Please continue to learn about the basics of long-lasting PFAS, the various negative impacts they create, and what is regularly done to remove them and prevent excessive exposure. 

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What are PFAS, and What are Their Potential Health Effects? 

PFAS, otherwise known as Per- and Polyfluorinated substances, are a group of specific, artificial chemicals that have been utilized for several decades in a massive range of consumer products. Said chemicals make goods water-resistant or provide them with non-stick capabilities. These chemicals persist in the environment and break down very slowly over time. This results in a gradual build-up or bioaccumulation of their presence in the bodies of both humans and animals, as well as the water, air, and soil. 

There are many ways for people to become exposed to PFAS. Such as consuming contaminated foods or liquids, using products that contain the chemicals, or working in manufacturing facilities of items made with the chemicals. However, one of the most concerning sources of PFAS exposure is regular drinking water, which many PFAS can naturally dissolve in.

Because thousands of PFAS chemicals are found in countless consumer, commercial, and industrial products, it can be very challenging to study them and determine their potential risks to humans, animals, and the environment. That said, multiple scientific studies have shown that PFAS exposure may be linked to several harmful effects, including;

  • Low infant birth weight
  • Decreased fertility
  • Liver inflammation
  • Elevated cholesterol levels
  • Weakened immune systems
  • Testicular and kidney cancer
  • Abnormal thyroid hormone levels

More research is currently needed to more fully understand the impacts of PFAS and the risk they pose to humans and the environment alike. The Biden-Harris Administration and the EPA are currently undergoing efforts to accelerate the pace of this research.

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A woman drinking a glass of PFAS-free water.
A woman drinking a glass of PFAS-free water.

How are PFAS Treated and Removed from Drinking Water?

Unfortunately, due to the basic chemical properties of PFAS, traditional drinking water treatments and technologies cannot effectively remove them from water sources. Thankfully, EPA researchers have discovered a small range of useful technologies and methods to remove PFAS from drinking water, specifically Perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and Perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS), which are the most well understood PFAS to date. These include;

Activated Carbon Treatment

Activated carbon (or granular activated carbon, GAC) treatment is the most studied form of PFAS removal, and it’s regularly utilized to absorb and remove organic compounds, synthetic compounds, taste, and odor compounds from drinking water treatment systems. Activated carbon is an effective absorbent to help accumulate PFAS at an interface between liquid and solid phases, where it can then be removed from the drinking water. GAC is made from various organic materials with high carbon contents, such as coal, wood, and lignite. 

Activated carbon treatments are known to be highly effective at removing PFAS from drinking water, especially when used after and in combination with different types of filters that have already removed other particulates and contaminants. Thomas Speth, a researcher from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), has stated that GAC can be 100% effective, depending on the type of carbon used, the depth of the carbon bed, the water’s flow rate, and the specific PFAS that need to be removed.

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Ion Exchange Treatment

Ion exchange treatments are another commonly used method for removing PFAS from drinking water. It utilizes ion exchange resins made up of highly porous, polymeric materials that are acid-based and water-insoluble. The tiny beads that form the resin are made from hydrocarbons and classified as either cationic or anionic, though only the anionic resin helps remove PFAS. Negatively charged cationic exchange resins (CER) are used to remove positively-charged contaminants, while positively charged anion exchange resins (AER) are used to remove negatively charged contaminants, like PFAS. 

Much like GAC, AER can remove 100% of present PFAS depending on several factors, including bed depth, flow rate, the degree and type of background organic material, other contaminants, and which PFAS need to be removed. 

High-Pressure Membranes

The final tactic for removing PFAS from drinking water is through high-pressure membranes, which includes nanofiltration or reverse osmosis practices. Both utilize a type of permeable membrane that rejects the presence of certain particles- like PFAS contaminants- while allowing others through, much like a type of filter. The essential difference between the two is that reverse osmosis membranes are tighter and reject all salt contaminants. Research has indicated that these membranes are typically more than 90% effective at removing a massive range of PFAS from drinking water and might be the best treatment option available for homeowners. 

Related: What is Carbon Offsetting? What to Know for 2022

A sink with a stream of PFAS-free tap water.
A sink with a stream of PFAS-free tap water.

Final Thoughts and Considerations to Keep in Mind

Though a range of methods and technologies have been discovered to help remove PFAS from drinking water, thanks to the results of rigorous scientific studies, more information is still needed to help ensure the further reduction of PFAS exposure. More research is also necessary to more fully understand the impacts that PFAS can have on humans and the environment. For other essential information on critical environmental issues and what you can do to help protect the planet, please consider exploring the range of top-quality, eco-friendly products provided by our trusted experts at Plant Switch today.

Also, consider exploring our wide selection of educational articles covering critical environmental awareness and conservation topics. Do you want to ensure your restaurant is doing its part to help keep the environment safe and free of trash? Take a look at the quality selection of superior, environmentally sustainable kitchen products proudly provided by our experts here at PlantSwitch today to learn more about what you can do for the planet.

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