Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS)

PFAS were a component of aqueous film-forming foams used to fight liquid fuel fires
PFAS were a component of aqueous film-forming foams used to fight liquid fuel fires
Source: National Archives, US Air Force (USAF) Fire fighters with the 167th Air Wing (AW), West Virginia Air National Guard (WVANG), quench a simulated aircraft fire during a training session

Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are called "forever chemicals" because the molecules are so tightly bonded that natural degradation occurs very slowly. There are 12,000 chemicals in the PFAS group.

PFAS were used in manufacture of stain and water repellent material, food packaging and other consumer products, plus fire-fighting foam. A detectable level of PFAS is estimated to be present in 45% of drinking water supplies in the United States, ranging from 8% in rural area served by wells to 70% in urban areas drawing water from lakes and rivers.1

PFAS molecules form forever chemicals because bonds between atoms are especially strong and thus slow to break apart
PFAS molecules form "forever chemicals" because bonds between atoms are especially strong and thus slow to break apart
Source: Wikipedia, Sustancias perfluoroalquiladas

By 2015, at last one of 32 types of PFAS were found in the blood of 95% of Americans. The health effects were not fully understood, but researchers were targeting cancers, delayed development of children, and fertility impacts. At last 75% of tap water tested in urban areas had a last one form of PFAS. In rural areas, 25% of drinking water systems were contaminated.2

In 2023, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proposed drinking water standards to limit PFAs to no more than 4 parts per trillion:3

On March 14, 2023, EPA announced the proposed National Primary Drinking Water Regulation (NPDWR) for six PFAS including perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), perfluorooctane sulfonic acid (PFOS), perfluorononanoic acid (PFNA), hexafluoropropylene oxide dimer acid (HFPO-DA, commonly known as GenX Chemicals), perfluorohexane sulfonic acid (PFHxS), and perfluorobutane sulfonic acid (PFBS)...

EPA is proposing a National Primary Drinking Water Regulation (NPDWR) to establish legally enforceable levels, called Maximum Contaminant Levels (MCLs), for six PFAS in drinking water. PFOA and PFOS as individual contaminants, and PFHxS, PFNA, PFBS, and HFPO-DA (commonly referred to as GenX Chemicals) as a PFAS mixture. EPA is also proposing health-based, non-enforceable Maximum Contaminant Level Goals (MCLGs) for these six PFAS.

Also in 2023, DuPont de Nemours Inc., the Chemours Company and Corteva Inc., settled a class action lawsuit and agreed to pay $1.2 billion for PFAS contamination in some drinking water systems. Separately, 3M agreed to pay $10.3 billion to provide funding for public water suppliers to test for PFAS and remove the chemicals.4

The technologies to remove PFAS from drinking water were still in early development stages. Options included activated carbon adsorption, ion exchange resins, and high-pressure membranes. Without a clear understanding of the investment required, suppliers of public drinking water had to speculate on the future costs to meet the proposed 4 parts per trillion standard.5

Drinking water is just one avenue for humans to ingest PFAS. In 2024, manufacturers of food packaging agreed voluntarily to stop using PFAS, which made hamburger wrappers and salad containers more oil-resistant. One university professor noted that the action by the manufacturers was significant in part because it limited PFAS exposure where consumers were unlikely to take action, because:6

Nobody reads the wrapper of their hamburger to see if it has PFAS or not.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) finalized its proposed rule fo limiting per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances on April 10, 2024. It was the first rule to deal with a new drinking water contaminant since 1996.

The Federal agency estimated the lower limits would reduce PFAS exposure for approximately 100 million people. The new rule forced drinking water suppliers, including public utilities, to clean up waste that others had put into waterways. Federal action was directed towards reducing the risks to drinking water customers rather than eliminating the discharge of PFAS, or the cleanup of sies leaking "forever chemicals" into water supplies.

The Environmental Protection Agency did announced the availability of $1 billion from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law to fund implementation by the 6-10% of the 66,000 public drinking water systems that would have to take action. Technologies to reduce PFAS in drinking water included granular activated carbon, reverse osmosis, or ion exchange systems.7

In April 2024, perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS) were designated by the Environmental Protection Agency as hazardous substances under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA). Tha designation made major chemical manufacturers and users as potentially responsible for the costs of removing the two chemicals in Superfund cleanup projects.8

When the Virginia Department of Health tested a sample of the 2,860 public water systems in the state, over 6% (18 out of 274) exceeded the threshold.9

Costs to remove PFAS chemicals from drinking water supplies will be significant. The Fauquier County Water and Sanitation Authority calculated that PFAS levels exceeded the new Environmental Protection Agency thresholds in 35% of the 46 public drinking water wells. The wells producing the most water had the greatest contamination, so 50% of the county's public drinking water exceeded the threshold.

The authority, which had $14 million in annual revenue from water and sewer fees, estimated that PFAS removal costs would require a capital investment cost of over $40 million. The chair of the Board of Supervisors said:10

Forty-four million dollars to treat an operation that only has $14 million in revenue over the course of a year? This is going to get political fast... I think there's going to be a lot of pressure on doing something here.



1. "Firefighting Foams: PFAS vs. Fluorine-Free Foams," US Fire Administration, May 25, 2023,; "Toxic 'forever chemicals' taint nearly half of U.S. tap water, study estimates," Washington Post, July 6, 2023,; "Tap Water Study Detects PFAS 'Forever Chemicals' Across the US," US Geological Survey, July 5, 2023,; Kelly L. Smalling et al., "Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in United States tapwater: Comparison of underserved private-well and public-supply exposures and associated health implications," Environment International, Volume 178 (August 2023), (last checked April 10, 2024)
2. "Toxic 'forever chemicals' taint nearly half of U.S. tap water, study estimates," Washington Post, July 6, 2023, (last checked February 27, 2024)
3. "Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS) - Proposed PFAS National Primary Drinking Water Regulation," Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), (last checked February 27, 2024)
4. "Chemical giants reach $1.2B settlement over 'forever chemicals' in water," Washington Post, June 3, 2023,; "3M to pay $10.3 billion to settle lawsuits over 'forever chemicals' in drinking water," Washington Post, June 23, 2023, (last checked February 27, 2024)
5. "Reducing PFAS in Drinking Water with Treatment Technologies," Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), (last checked February 27, 2024)
6. "PFAS chemicals to be phased out of food packaging. Here's how to avoid them," Washington Post, February 28, 2024, (last checked February 29, 2024)
7. "Biden-Harris Administration Finalizes First-Ever National Drinking Water Standard to Protect 100M People from PFAS Pollution," Environmental Protection Agency,. April 10, 2024,; "In a first, EPA sets limit for 'forever chemicals' in drinking water," Washington Post, April 10, 2024, (last checked April 10, 2024)
8. "For the first time, U.S. may force polluters to clean up these 'forever chemicals'," Washington Post, April 19, 2024,; "Biden-Harris Administration Finalizes Critical Rule to Clean up PFAS Contamination to Protect Public Health," Environmental Protection Agency, April 19, 2024, (last checked April 25, 2024)
9. "PFAS clean up could cost Virginia public water systems millions for years to come," Virginia Mercury, January 9, 2024, (last checked May 15, 2024)
10. "Forever chemical cleanup could cost Fauquier County $44 million," Fauquier Times, May 14, 2024, (last checked May 15, 2024)

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