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It is difficult to fully prevent PFAS exposure because PFAS are present at low levels in some foods and in the environment. However, there are steps you can take to reduce your PFAS exposure:
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Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are a large group of man-made chemicals that have been used in industry and consumer products worldwide since the 1950s. These chemicals are used to make products to resist stains, grease, and water. The most studied PFAS are perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA or C8) and perfluorooctane sulfonic acid (PFOS).
Common Uses of PFAS:
PFAS do not occur naturally but are widespread in the environment. PFAS can be found in the environment near areas where they are manufactured or where products containing PFAS are often used. PFAS are found in people, wildlife, and fish all over the world. Most PFAS do not break down easily in the environment. Some PFAS can stay in people's bodies a long time.
There are currently four per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) that have health advisory levels established by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA): PFOA, PFOS, GenX, and PFBS.
Perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) has been a manufactured perfluorochemical and a byproduct in producing fluoropolymers. Perfluorochemicals (PFCs) are a group of chemicals used to make fluoropolymer coatings and products that resist heat, oil, stains, grease, and water. PFOA was used particularly for manufacturing polytetrafluoroethylene, but since 2002, manufacturers have used a new process not requiring this chemical. PFOA persists in the environment and does not break down. PFOA has been identified in bodies of water and in a variety of land and water animals.
Perfluorooctane sulfonic acid (PFOS) (PDF) is a synthetic, fully fluorinated organic acid; it is used in a variety of consumer products and is generated as a degradation product of other perfluorinated compounds. Because of strong carbon-fluorine bonds, PFOS is stable to metabolic and environmental degradation. PFOS is one of a large group of perfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) 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. Water resources contaminated by PFOS have been associated with releases from manufacturing sites, industrial sites, fire/crash training areas, and industrial or municipal waste sites where products are disposed of or applied.
GenX is a trade name for a man‐made and unregulated chemical used in manufacturing nonstick coatings and for other purposes. Chemours' facility in Fayetteville began producing GenX commercially in 2009 as a replacement for PFOA. The same chemical is also produced as a byproduct during other manufacturing processes, and it may have been present in the environment for many years before being produced commercially as GenX.
PFBS is a replacement chemical for PFOS, a chemical that was voluntarily phased out by the primary U.S. manufacturer by 2002. PFBS has been identified in the environment and consumer products, including surface water, wastewater, drinking water, dust, carpeting and carpet cleaners, and floor wax.
On June 15, 2022, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced interim and final health advisory levels for four per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) found in public drinking water systems and wells across country and the state. These are the only health advisory levels established by the EPA at this time for PFAS compounds:
Health advisories are non-enforceable and non-regulatory levels that provide information on contaminants that can cause human health effects and are known or anticipated to occur in drinking water.
While unenforceable, these advisories indicate the level of drinking water contamination below which adverse health effects are not expected to occur. Health advisories provide technical information that federal, state, and local officials can use to inform the development of monitoring plans, investments in treatment solutions, and future policies to protect the public from PFAS exposure.
According to the EPA, the agency issues an interim health advisory when a contaminant's associated health effects assessment is in draft form, but there is a pressing need to provide information to public health officials prior to finalization of the health effects assessment. The PFOA and PFOS interim health advisories are intended to be in place during the time interval between initial understanding of health effects and publication of the final health advisory, maximum contaminant level goal (MCLG), and/or maximum contaminant level (MCL). Final health advisories are based on final health effects assessments.
Under the Safe Drinking Water Act, EPA has the authority to set enforceable National Primary Drinking Water Regulations for drinking water contaminants and require monitoring of public water systems.
According to the EPA PFAS Strategic Roadmap, the agency plans to establish a national primary drinking water regulation for PFOA and PFOS that would set enforceable limits and require monitoring of public water supplies, while evaluating additional PFAS and groups of PFAS. The EPA Science Advisory Board consultation is ongoing; with a proposed rule expected in fall 2022 and a final rule expected in fall 2023.
PFAS contamination is present throughout North Carolina. NCDEQ and NCDHHS began investigating the presence of GenX in the Cape Fear River in June 2017. The Chemours facility in Fayetteville was identified as the company that produces the GenX chemical for industrial processes.
Brunswick County conducts weekly tests of its raw and treated water for several PFAS compounds, including the four with interim or final EPA health advisory levels (PFOA, PFOS, GenX, and PFBS). Test results are published on the County's website for transparency.
Note: As of June 2022, Brunswick County's current wholesale customers include Bald Head Island, Holden Beach, Brunswick Regional Water and Sewer (H2Go), Oak Island, Ocean Isle Beach, Shallotte, and Southport.
The North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality (NC DEQ) has a consent order in place that requires Chemours to test private wells for PFAS if they are located within a certain distance to the Chemours facility near Fayetteville or the Lower Cape Fear River. If this could apply to you, contact NCDEQ at 910-678-1100 for those in the lower Cape Fear (Brunswick, Columbus, New Hanover, and Pender counties).
For private well users that fall outside the eligible testing areas, you can review the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Service's PFAS Testing and Treatment Factsheet to find a lab that can test your well.
Generally, the lower the levels, the lower the risk.
For GENX and PFBS:
For PFOA and PFOS:
The new EPA health advisory levels for PFOA and PFOS are below levels that can be detected with current commercial laboratory testing. Therefore, any detection of either PFOA or PFOS in drinking water could represent an increased health risk.
Yes. Based on the current science, only a small amount of PFAS gets into your body through skin, so little PFAS exposure would come from showering, bathing, and similar activities.
Typical follow-up: What about brushing my teeth? - The amount of water ingested while brushing teeth is minimal relative to the amount of water typically consumed through eating and Exposures from brushing teeth would present a minimal health risk.
The health advisory levels were calculated for the most sensitive populations, e.g., infants. If the GenX or PFBS is below the advisory level, then it is not expected to increase risk of health effects and can be used.
The new EPA health advisory levels for PFOA and PFOS are below levels that can be detected with current commercial laboratory testing. Therefore, any detection of either PFOA or PFOS in drinking water could represent an increased health risk and we would recommend using an alternate source or filtered water.
Health advisory levels are established for humans. It is up to each pet owner to decide whether to offer water with PFAS detections to pets or animals.
At this time, scientists are still learning about the health effects of exposure to mixtures of different PFAS. One way to learn about whether PFAS will harm people is to do studies on lab animals.
Humans and animals react differently to PFAS, and not all effects observed in animals may occur in humans. Scientists have ways to estimate how the exposure and effects in animals compare to what they would be in humans.
Additional research may change our understanding of the relationship between exposure to PFAS and human health effects.
Based on the EPA's review of the science, exposures to these four PFAS (PFOA, PFOS, GenX, PFBS) above the EPA health advisory levels can:
If you are concerned about specific issues with your health, talk with your healthcare provider. Information for health care providers is available from NCDHHS (PDF) and from the CDC's Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.
Human health effects from exposure to low environmental levels of PFAS are uncertain. Studies of laboratory animals given large amounts of PFAS indicate that some PFAS may affect growth and development. Epidemiologic studies on PFAS exposure evaluated several health effects. See descriptions of these studies. More research is necessary to assess the human health effects of exposure to PFAS. (Information is from the CDC.)
PFAS can be found in the environment near facilities where they are made or in areas where products containing PFAS are often used. PFAS may be found in contaminated drinking water, food, indoor dust, some consumer products, and workplaces. Most exposures occur through consuming contaminated food or water. Only a small amount of PFAS can get into your body through your skin, so very little PFAS exposure occurs during swimming, bathing, or showering in water contaminated with PFAS. Although some types of PFAS are no longer used, many products such as food packaging, firefighting foam, and stain-resistant treatments still contain PFAS.
There are many ongoing PFAS health studies in North Carolina and across the country. Although we don't currently have one location for summarizing PFAS studies, NCDHHS continues to engage with researchers at the forefront of PFAS research to evaluate new health and toxicity information as it becomes available and update our public health guidance when needed. Ongoing studies include: