Your water may be contaminated with PFAS — so what the heck are they?

Aug 11, 2016 at 3:43 p.m. ET
Image: Jez Timms

What helps you lose weight, lowers blood pressure, cures headaches, makes you look younger, has no side effects and is practically free? Such a miraculous thing does exist, and it's in your kitchen right now: H2O.

Water is the ultimate health food (not to mention that whole "necessary for life" thing), so keeping a safe, abundant supply should be government priority No. 1. Unfortunately, as has been seen with the lead crisis in Flint, Michigan, and in other places, the government may be falling down on this duty. And now we have a new contaminant in our water supply to worry about. The water supply for at least 6 million Americans was found to be tainted with dangerous levels of perfluoroalkyl substances, according to an alarming new study published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology Letters.

contaminated water
Image: Environmental Science and Technology Letters

PFAS are commercial chemicals commonly used in everything from household items like plastic food wrappers and clothing to military-grade fire-extinguishing foam. So it's safe to say that we're all exposed to these chemicals on a regular basis, but the question is, just how harmful are they to our health? Coming into contact with them on a small scale (by wearing clothing treated with the chemical, for instance) hasn't shown to be detrimental, but drinking it certainly has. And thanks to large-scale uses of PFAS, especially in areas around military bases and airports that use the foam as a fire retardant, a significant amount of groundwater has been contaminated, the researchers found.

More: Here's your summer reminder to keep your water bottle out of the sun

The EPA has set limits for how much PFAS can be in drinking water, but like lead, any amount is harmful, according to study co-author Dr. Philippe Grandjean of the Harvard School of Public Health. "The EPA advisory limit ... is much too high to protect us against toxic effects on the immune system," he said. "And the available water data only reveals the tip of the iceberg of contaminated drinking water."

The study looked at public sources of drinking water only and not private wells or smaller systems, which means that the number of people with contaminated water could be closer to 50 million, or 1 in every 6 Americans, the report said.

What the effects of the polluted water are aren't entirely clear yet, but a second study has found that high levels of PFAS weaken the immune system and stunt growth in children. Moreover, women showed particularly high concentrations of the chemical, and the researchers found that it can be passed through breast milk.

So what do we now? It's not like we can just give up water.

Bottled water may be your first impulse, but there's the risk that it's drawn from a contaminated water supply, and many types of bottled water are simply tap water. We can and should be advocates in our communities and lobby for testing done in our local water supplies. In addition, environmental activists have asked companies to phase out use of the chemical, and some, like DuPont, have started the process. But in the meantime, the best defense may be a good offense, says Shawn Talbott, Ph.D., a nutritional biochemist at Harvard (who is not affiliated with this study).

More: Your plastic water bottle may actually be making you gain weight

"Whenever we’re exposed to toxins in the environment, like this chemical in the water, our bodies ramp up various defenses that I collectively refer to as cellular defense responses. These CDRs are cellular pathways inside of every cell in the body to protect cells from damage by toxins and repair any residual damage in its earliest stages," he explains.

The best way to activate your own toxin-defense system, he says, is to make sure you're eating a wide array of brightly colored fruits and vegetables and spices and drinking green tea. Add in exercise, and you've got a powerful system for protecting your health in many areas.