Frequently Asked Question about PFAS
For your convenience, below are frequently asked questions about PFAS. This discussion explains what PFAS are, what is being done in response to PFAS, and what you can do to avoid using items containing these chemicals.
What are PFAS?
- “PFAS” is short for Per- and Poly-Fluoroalkyl Substances.
- PFAS are a group of humanmade chemicals used for decades in numerous products including stain-resistant carpet and fabric, non-stick cookware, firefighting foam, waterproof clothing, personal care products, and fast-food packaging.
Why are the Water Authority and the local community water utilities concerned about PFAS?
- As stewards of public health, providing safe drinking water is our top priority. Addressing PFAS in drinking water is about protecting the community from a potential public health risk.
- PFAS can be harmful because they persist in the environment and the human body for long periods of time. Recent findings in peer reviewed studies indicate that exposure to certain PFAS may have harmful health effects in people. According to WDNR, this includes increased risk of certain types of cancers, development delays, thyroid and heart issues, infertility, and low birth weight. The USEPA additionally points out PFAS may reduce the ability of the body’s immune system to fight infections, including reduced vaccine response, interference with the body’s natural hormones, increased cholesterol levels and/or risk of obesity.
- Research continues to be conducted to determine how different levels of exposure to different PFAS can affect human health, including low levels over long periods of time, especially in children (according to USEPA).
How does PFAS enter drinking water?
- PFAS have been used in industry and consumer products since the 1940s for their ability to repel oil and grease. Because of these properties, they also move easily through the environment and can be found in trace amounts almost everywhere.
- The highest concentrations of PFAS in drinking water supplies have been found in water systems that draw water from groundwater wells. PFAS are also being found, but at much lower concentrations, in water systems that draw water from lakes and rivers including the Great Lakes.
- PFAS can enter soil, groundwater, and surface water near places where these chemicals were released into the environment. Some of the common sources of PFAS pollution include airports where firefighting foam was discharged, firefighting foam testing facilities, and manufacturing or chemical production facilities that produce or use PFAS.
- An extensive list of where PFAS can be found is provided by the EPA: (Link to the list) https://www.epa.gov/pfas/our-current-understanding-human-health-and-environmental-risks-pfas.
How is PFAS concentration measured?
- PFAS are typically measured in parts per trillion when measuring their presence in drinking water. One part per trillion is similar to one drop of water in 17 Olympic-sized swimming pools.
- One part per trillion (ppt) is equal to one nanogram per liter (1 ng/L). This is one thousand times smaller than one part per billion (or 1 microgram per liter, ug/L), and one million times smaller than one part per million (or 1 milligram per liter, mg/L).
- In 2022, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources set the maximum allowable concentration of PFAS in drinking water at 70 parts per trillion.
- In June of 2022, the EPA set an interim health advisory limit for two specific types of PFAS. Those levels were set at 0.004 parts per trillion for PFOA and 0.02 parts per trillion for PFOS.
- According to the EPA, lifetime health advisories are set to protect all people, including sensitive populations and life stages, from adverse health effects resulting from a lifetime of exposure to these PFAS in drinking water. EPA’s lifetime health advisories also take into account other potential sources of exposure to these PFAS beyond drinking water (for example, food, air, consumer products, etc.) that could add to the risk of negative health effects.
- Although not enforceable, these advisory limits are intended to provide technical information that guides officials to develop monitoring plans, determine treatment solutions, and create policies.
- The EPA has not stopped polluters from discharging PFAS, but they plan to set an enforceable limit (MCL—maximum contaminant level) by the end of 2023.
- As of now, these concentrations of PFAS found in EPA’s health advisory limits aren’t detectable through sampling with current lab technologies.
- For context, below are recent Consumer Reports studies for details on PFAS found in everyday items:
- Amount of PFAS found in many fast-food wrappers and containers: https://www.consumerreports.org/health/food-contaminants/dangerous-pfas-chemicals-are-in-your-food-packaging-a3786252074/#allResults
- Amount of PFAS found in bottled water: https://www.consumerreports.org/water-quality/whats-really-in-your-bottled-water-a5361150329/
What is the Water Authority doing about PFAS?
- The Water Authority is working with its wholesale water provider, Manitowoc Public Utilities (MPU), to monitor for the presence of PFAS in our drinking water through testing.
- MPU tested for 12 different PFAS compounds in 2014, which resulted in no detectable PFAS.
- MPU recently tested for PFAS again in February of 2023 and most recently this June. This new round of sampling tested for 29 different PFAS compounds and the sampling results will be shared here.
- Results indicate our water is well below the EPA’s and WDNR’s proposed limits. In fact, due to the positive result of the most recent sampling, the WDNR has waived the need to perform as frequent sampling as previously required. MPU will continue to sample as required by the EPA.
- While sampling results to date show compliance with all existing and proposed requirements, the Water Authority and MPU will continue to work together to ensure that our drinking water is safe and complies with the related state and federal regulations.
- If modifications to the water treatment process are required at MPU, the Water Authority and MPU will work together to enhance the treatment plant to provide safe drinking water for our customers.
- This collaborative approach creates the opportunity to address PFAS cost-effectively by working together to provide a regional solution.
- The Water Authority and MPU are closely monitoring developments as more is learned about PFAS.
What is your local water utility doing about PFAS?
- Although the member communities receive the same water previously tested by Manitowoc Public Utilities, each member will perform their own testing of the water entering their local distribution system. Sampling results may vary based on how the testing is completed.
- Each member community will also test the water quality coming from their emergency backup groundwater wells. These wells are maintained as a backup supply for use in the unlikely event that the Water Authority’s flow of water is disrupted for an extended period of time.
- Note that sampling schedules may vary from one community to the next based on EPA requirements, with some of Water Authority member’s local utilities sampling this year and some in 2024.
What should customers expect as more is learned about PFAS through sampling?
- The Water Authority will continue to share information as sampling results are validated.
- If unsafe levels of PFAS are found in our drinking water, it will be vital to communicate with accuracy and transparency to all water utility customers. As a trusted partner of the member communities, the Water Authority will assist with these communications.
- The sampling results will be shared with all customers through the annual Consumer Confidence Report.
Ways to avoid consuming PFAS
- Use caution if you decide to switch to plastic bottled water as it may also contain PFAS. (Consumer Reports tested popular brands and found PFAS.)
- Avoid waterproof /stain-resistant textiles and clothing that contain PFAS.
- Stop using PFAS-containing food-contact materials such as take-out containers.
- TIP: Transfer food out of packaging as soon as you get it. Avoid reheating food in takeout containers, because both heat and time food is in contact with PFAS increase the likelihood of PFAS transferring from wrappers to food.
- Avoid microwave popcorn which relies on PFAS to create the nonstick surface inside the bag.
- Most nonstick cookware is made with PTFE, a type of PFAS, and should be avoided.
- If you use a water filter, make sure to follow the manufacturer’s recommendations for when to replace it to reduce contamination build up.
- Additionally, don’t assume your home water filter removes PFAS; do some research on the filter you have.
- Avoiding water-resistant products and products with PTFE or “fluoro-” in the ingredients can help limit exposure. The Environmental Working Group database identifies which shampoos, dental floss, makeup, and other personal-care products do and do not contain PFAS.
- Follow WDNR fish consumption advisories. Found here: https://dnr.wisconsin.gov/topic/Fishing/consumption