What PFAS are and How to Filter Them Out of Your Water

PFAS contaminants in the water supply have been popping up in the news a lot lately. The reports are concerning, to say the least, but many people I’ve talked to are still wondering what PFAS actually are and what risks they pose.

As part of our overall series on water filtration while traveling or living off grid we’re giving a solid overview of what PFAS are, the health risks they pose, and ways you can effectively and affordably filter them out of your water to protect yourself and your family.

What are PFAS?

PFAS, short for Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances, are a family of more than 12,000 different chemical compounds. They’re commonly used as waterproofing treatments for clothing and are the chemical compounds behind popular Teflon non-stick pans.

What makes PFAS special is the carbon-fluorine molecule bond they all include. It’s a powerful bond that’s nearly impossible for other molecules to break, causing them to slip off. If you’ve ever fried an egg in a Teflon pan you know what we mean here.

That’s great for their intended purpose but also means that PFAS don’t degrade naturally and last almost forever once introduced to the environment.

PFAS have been used widely for decades and are found virtually everywhere on earth, including, concerningly, in almost every blood sample analyzed by the CDC.

Health Risks of PFAS

PFAS pose significant risks to human health through even tiny levels of ingestion. Numerous studies show a range of potential impacts that affect adults, children, and particularly infants.

The potential risks of PFAS have been known for decades but it wasn’t until June 2022 that the EPA issued health advisories showing that PFAS are potentially dangerous even at the lowest levels.

Studies reveal that PFAS exposure at even very low doses can lead to:

  • Developmental effects or delays in young children, including bone variations, low birth weight, behavioral issues, and accelerated puberty
  • Decreased fertility rates or greater levels of high blood pressure in pregnant women
  • Increased risk of many cancers, including prostate, testicular, and kidney cancers
  • Lowered immune response and a subsequent drop in the body’s ability to fight off infections, including a reduced vaccine response
  • Increased cholesterol levels
  • Increased risk of obesity
  • Interference with hormone regulation and production

These are just a selection of the most serious potential health effects found from PFAS. They vary depending on the type of PFAS you’re exposed to and the level of exposure. Because thousands of different PFAS compounds are found in the environment, it’s challenging to identify all the possible negative impacts on health.

As with many toxin-related issues, infants and young children are most at risk because of their proportionally smaller body weight to intake dosage. Simply put, children drink more water, eat more food, and breathe more volume of potentially polluted air than adults do for their body weight.

Water Filters That Remove PFAS

A large-scale PFAS study performed by the CDC showed that blood PFAS levels declined rapidly after a water filtration system was installed. The trick is finding a water filter that can effectively remove PFAS.

Because PFAS are molecules rather than biological or physical contaminants, only a few types of water filters will successfully remove them. The two most effective options are reverse osmosis filters and activated carbon filters.

Reverse Osmosis

Reverse Osmosis water filters work by creating a difference of concentration in water separated by a semi-permeable membrane. By applying pressure to the water on the side with contaminants, pure water molecules can be forced through the membrane from the contaminated side to the uncontaminated side.

Because the membrane is designed only to allow water molecules, the contaminants are completely removed, including any PFAS present in your water.

Reverse Osmosis Filters we recommend:

Activated Carbon

Activated carbon filters are absorption-type filters that use activated carbon to absorb contaminants chemically. Activated carbon is created from organic matter such as coconut husks, peat, or wood and can remove significant amounts of chemical contaminants, including PFAS.

They come in two varieties, Granular Activated Carbon (GAC) and Solid Block Activated Carbon, with solid block the more effective but generally more expensive solution. The carbon has a dense structure of tiny pores that act to trap an extensive range of chemical contaminants.

As water passes through activated carbon filters contaminants are absorbed like a sponge. The technology has advanced significantly to the point where activated carbon filters can now reliably reduce hundreds of potential chemical, industrial, pharmaceutical, and agricultural contaminants by 99% or more.

Testing has shown that high-quality activated carbon filters are highly effective at removing PFAS from water. What’s important to note is the ‘high-quality’ modifier above.

Activated carbon has been used in taste improvement pitcher water filters in the past, but those generally didn’t remove significant amounts of PFAS or other harmful contaminants. Nowadays, though, some pitcher filters have been designed to reduce PFAS significantly.

Activated Carbon filters we recommend:

Pitcher/Countertop Water Filters

In-line/Undersink Home Water Filters

Bottle Water Filters

Final Thoughts

PFAS are found nearly everywhere, including in your drinking water, and have been linked to a wide range of adverse health effects. Using a high-quality water filter is one of the best ways to protect your family from the dangers of persistent PFAS.

Reverse osmosis or activated carbon filters can both help significantly reduce the levels of PFAS found in your water.

Josh Davidson

Josh Davidson

Josh is a freelance writer and avid outdoorsman. He graduated from the University of Georgia with a B.A. in Political Science and has done his best since to live location-independent. He's been a firm supporter of the tiny movement, new homesteaders, and sustainable alternative living and used his knowledge of these topics to convert a 1999 Dodge Ram van to explore as much of Wild America as he could reach.
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