Introduction: About PFAS
PFAS are a family of chemicals known scientifically as per- and polyfluoralkyl substances. They have been widely used for more than 70 years in industrial and consumer applications because of their ability to repel oil and water, resist heat, and reduce friction. PFAS products include stain- and water-resistant textiles, non-stick cookware, and specialized applications in electronics, photography, and hydraulic fluids. PFAS are also found in toxic fire fighting foam, which is commonly used in military operations and airports.
One nickname for PFAS is "forever chemicals" because it is extremely difficult to remove PFAS from the natural environment and the human body. Because of how PFAS have been used, exposure to PFAS can happen through the work place, home, food, packaging, water, consumer products, and/or air. Most people on Earth now have PFAS in their blood. Past research has linked PFAS exposure to adverse health effects. Colorado policy has already changed, but more research is needed to improve responses to PFAS exposure.
Learning about PFAS can help you understand what you can do to reduce personal PFAS exposure. As you learn, you may also be able to help others. Use a link above or scroll down to learn more.
[See References section, numbers 1-7, on Educational Resources and References page].
PFAS in drinking water
PFAS can enter drinking water in many different ways. Some industries may discharge PFAS into water resources through their wastewater. During storms, water can seep through trash at landfills. It can separate chemicals from disposed plastics and hazardous substances. As water flows, it can carry these PFAS into ground water, where it may contaminate drinking water. In Colorado, concern about PFAS contamination in drinking water is very high because of toxic aqueous fire fighting foam (AFFF). Several studies have and are being conducted to understand and reduce risk of PFAS exposure from AFFF.
PFAS in firefighting foams
To date, most discoveries of
PFAS-contaminated water in Colorado have been linked to toxic firefighting foams. When these foams were used during military trainings at airports, they leached into groundwater, which contaminated well water and drinking water supplies. In addition, fire fighters were at high risk of exposure to health-damaging chemicals.
The Act focuses on reducing human exposure to PFAS from firefighting foams. To address this, the legislature passed the Firefighting Foams and Personal Protective Equipment Control Act (Hb19-1279). Since 2019, toxic foam has also been banned from use during training or for testing
fire suppression systems.
PFAS in the home
PFAS dust may exist in living spaces because of chemicals used in manufacturing carpet, flooring, and furniture. In the past, carpet manufacturers used PFAS to make their products stain- and soil-resistant. Research has found carpet dust samples to contain significant levels of 40 different PFAS. Carpets can also be a sink for PFAS dust, which means carpets can collect and keep more PFAS over time. Children and pets are at higher risk due to closer proximity. Most carpet manufacturers recently stopped using PFAS, and retailers like The Home Depot and Lowe’s now sell only PFAS-free carpets. Additionally, frequent vacuuming and dusting may help reduce PFAS exposure.
PFAS in the human body
Most people on Earth have PFAS in their blood. Drinking water is the most common route for high exposure, but exposure to PFAS can also happen to people in the workplace and through food and household products. PFAS can remain in the body for many years even after exposure has stopped. Some studies have shown that some PFAS may impact health. Some health effects associated with PFAS in people include: liver and thyroid disease, increased cholesterol, lower infant birth weight, and decreased vaccine response. However, a variety of things can influence how PFAS affect people's health. This includes the levels of PFAS exposure, how long people are exposed, and personal factors like age and comprehensive health. Many PFAS have not been well studied and a lot of PFAS research findings are inconsistent. More research is needed to understand how PFAS exposure can impact health.
PFAS in the environment
PFAS can enter the environment through production or waste streams. They are also very persistent and can be in the air, water, or soil. PFAS accumulate within living organisms through a process called ‘bioaccumulation’. They can also increase in concentration through a process called biomagnification. Thus, they can affect natural processes, which reduces environmental well-being. Many states and tribes have growing interest in and concern about PFAS. To support these groups, the Environmental Protection Agency needs more research. This research will provide information about managing the risk of PFAS on public health and the environment.
PFAS in fast food containers
PFAS can prevent or reduce leaks of grease, oil, and liquid. So, the Food and Drug Administration allowed the use of PFAS in food packaging. Items like french fry containers, disposable coffee cups, and Styrofoam dinner take-home boxes may have PFAS. PFAS are also in plastic straws, bottled water, and single-use packaging for items such as candy bars. Heat from microwaves can trigger chemical release and migration. In landfill decomposition processes, the sun's heat can cause the same thing with discarded packaging. Th bottom line is that any consumable product can be contaminated indirectly if the packaging material contains PFAS, and chemicals can re-enter food and water supplies after consumption. Luckily, PFAS-free alternatives are becoming more popular. Also, depending on type of cookware, cooking from home may help lower PFAS levels and exposure.
PFAS in consumer products
Manufacturers use PFAS in many products used daily by most people. For example, many cooking pans contain PFAS in their nonstick Teflon coating. The same PFAS found in Teflon are also found in makeup. In a recent study study, scientists identified 13 different PFAS in 200 cosmetic products from 28 brands. The same study found PFAS in sunscreen, shampoo and shaving cream. Other consumer products that contain PFAS include waterproof clothing such as rain jackets. Manufactured plastic products such as water bottles, plastic straws, and stain-resistant chemicals or sprays are also made with PFAS.
PFAS in Colorado policy
Colorado has developed several policies to protect human health and the environment from PFAS. Some of these policies include:
Firefighting Foams and Personal Protective Equipment Control Act: Puts limits on the use, storage and sale of a specific type of PFAS containing firefighting foam.
CDPHE Hazardous Substances Response Act: Creates funding to develop a firefighting foam takeback program, assess PFAS levels in the environment, and help communities facing PFAS contamination.
PFAS Narrative Policy: Requires that certain facilities monitor their wastewater for PFAS. It also allows the State to investigate potential PFAS sources and put limits on the levels of PFAS facilities can have in wastewater.
PFAS in agriculture
Water used in agriculture or straight out of a well for gardening or irrigation is generally not treated for PFAS. If PFAS are in ground water or surface water, both nutrients and PFAS may be pulled out of the soil by plants. As water flows through the plant, each stem, leaf, or edible fruit stores nutrients and may also store PFAS. Biosolids are another substance that can reintroduce PFAS to the food chain. Biosolids are organic matter used as fertilizers after recycle from wastewater treatment plants. Like irrigation water, they are often not treated for PFAS. PFAS contamination of crops may be a concern for individuals living in areas with known PFAS sources. However, there is no evidence that the general produce supply in Colorado is contaminated with PFAS at levels high enough to impact human health.
PFAS in locally produced/raised food
All living things on this planet are connected. Water helps grass grow, cows or other living organisms eat the grass, and humans eat the beef and drink the milk. If cows drink water or eat plants tainted with PFAS, their beef and milk may also contain PFAS. Water contaminated with PFAS may also contaminate fish. Down the production line, consumers may eat contaminated food. Luckily, PFAS contamination can be monitored and controlled. In 2019, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration tested 91 samples of food products that Americans commonly eat. They found varying levels of PFAS in 14 samples out of 91, but concluded that at the detected levels, the products were not likely to be a health concern. This means consuming produce and animal products from the general food supply is not likely to result in high enough PFAS levels to create negative public health impacts.