What are PFAS?
Perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, are a group of chemicals made by humans. Since the 1950s, PFAS have been used in many consumer products and industrial processes. They have properties that resist heat, grease, and water. There are thousands of types of PFAS. The most common types are PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid) and PFOS (perfluorooctanoic sulfonic acid). View the Family Tree of PFAS (PDF).
Where are PFAS found?
While PFOA and PFOS have been phased out from their use in commercial products, they are still found in the environment from historical uses and in some firefighting foams. In addition, products are often made with other PFAS as replacements for PFOA and PFOS. These PFAS can be found in everyday products, such as:
- Cleaning products.
- Water-resistant fabrics, such as rain jackets, umbrellas and tents.
- Grease-resistant paper.
- Nonstick cookware.
- Personal care products, like shampoo, dental floss, nail polish, and eye makeup.
- Stain-resistant coatings used on carpets, upholstery, and other fabrics.
How can I be exposed to PFAS?
The main ways people can be exposed to PFAS include:
- Drinking contaminated municipal or private well water.
- Eating fish with high levels of PFAS.
- Eating food grown or raised near places that used or made PFAS.
- Eating food packaged in material made with PFAS.
- Swallowing contaminated soil or dust.
- Using some consumer products, such as ski wax, nonstick cookware, and stain and water repellant sprays for fabrics.
How can PFAS affect health?
Scientists conduct research in both humans and animals to see how PFAS affect us.
Research studies among humans have looked at a possible link between PFAS levels in the blood and harmful health effects. However, most studies have analyzed only a small number of chemicals. Not all PFAS have the same health effects. Research suggests that high levels of some PFAS may:
- Increase cholesterol levels.
- Decrease how well the body responds to vaccines.
- Increase the risk of thyroid disease.
- Decrease fertility in women.
- Increase the risk of serious conditions like high blood pressure or pre-eclampsia during pregnancy.
- Lower infant birth weights (the decrease in weight is small and may not affect health).
Other research has tested PFAS in laboratory animals. Humans and animals do not always react the same way to PFAS. Scientists, though, have ways to compare the results in animals to what they would be in humans. What they learn from this process helps them decide how to protect people from harm caused by chemicals. Animal studies have found that PFAS can affect development, the immune system, and the liver.
PFAS blood tests
Most people in the U.S. have PFAS in their blood. PFAS levels are similar to low levels of other contaminants in the blood like flame retardants and plasticizers. You can have a PFAS blood test to check your levels. However, there isn’t enough research to know at what PFAS levels you should expect health problems.
If you have been exposed to PFAS and are concerned about your health, you can talk to your doctor. You can share this fact sheet with your doctor to help start a conversation about how PFAS can affect your health.
How can I protect myself and my family from PFAS?
Because PFAS are so common in our environment, there is no easy way to completely avoid them. There are some simple actions, though, that can limit our contact with them.
Use the Department of Natural Resource's (DNR's) PFAS Interactive Data Viewer to find out if you live near a PFAS site.
If you do not live near a site of PFAS contamination, it is unlikely that PFAS are a problem in your drinking water.
If you live near a site of PFAS contamination, you should connect with your local municipality and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to learn about available resources, including testing.
If you have tested for and found PFAS in your drinking water, use this online PFAS Assessment Tool to evaluate the health risk from PFAS in your drinking water and determine whether you need a safer water source.
If the PFAS levels in your water are high, use a different water source for drinking, making foods that take up a lot of water (like rice, oatmeal, and gelatin), and making baby formula.
- Bottled water that has been purified or filtered,
- Water from a source that has been tested for PFAS and does not contain PFAS above the recommended standards, and
- Water from a treatment system certified by ANSI/NSF Standards 53 or 58 to reduce PFAS. View our Reducing PFAS in Your Drinking Water Guide, P-0301 for information on which devices work best.
You can use your tap water for doing laundry, washing dishes, brushing your teeth, or filling your swimming pool.
To lower the chance of drinking small amounts of PFAS, remind swimmers not to swallow pool water.
View PFAS and Backyard Gardening, P-03111. It explains more about plant uptake of PFAS. It also has ways to reduce PFAS exposure if you garden in areas with known or suspected contamination.
View Eating Your Catch—Making Health Choices from Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. Follow the guidelines that are in place where you fish to lower possible health risks. These risks come from common chemicals that harm fish, such as polychlorinated biphenyls and mercury. They also come from PFAS.
PFAS do not easily enter the body through the skin. This means it’s usually okay to swim in surface water—which includes lakes, rivers, and ponds—even if it has PFAS. There are still important ways to avoid swallowing PFAS by accident:
- Keep water out of your mouth—If water gets in your mouth, don’t swallow it. Besides PFAS, surface water can have algae, bacteria, viruses, and other harmful substances. They can pose a health risk for people and pets if they swallow them.
- Avoid foam—Kids and pets should avoid foam since they are more likely to swallow it by accident. Foam found in surface water can come from natural causes, pollution, or both. Natural foams can have algae, bacteria, parasites, and decaying organic matter. Pollution foams can have chemical contaminants, such as PFAS.
- Shower after swimming—Rinse off after swimming or touching surface water. Always wash your hands with soap and water before touching food.
- Rinse your pets—Don’t forget to clean your pets after they swim in surface water. Don’t let them lick foam or algae off their fur.
Soil that has PFAS can come into your home from the outside. Dust also can have PFAS from common household products. Examples include stain-resistant carpeting or clothing that repels water. Vacuuming using a high efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filter reduces the amount of dirt and dust in your house.
Consumer products that may have PFAS include:
- Cleaning products.
- Nonstick cookware.
- Paints, varnishes, and sealants. Follow directions carefully for safe use of these products.
- Personal care products like shampoo or floss and cosmetics like nail polish and eye makeup.
- Some grease-resistant paper, fast food containers or wrappers, microwave popcorn bags, pizza boxes, and candy wrappers.
- Stain-resistant coatings on carpets, upholstery, and other fabrics.
- Water-resistant clothes.
There have been recent federal efforts to remove PFAS from consumer products. These efforts have decreased how many people are exposed to PFAS from these products. However, some products still have PFAS.
Who regulates PFAS in Wisconsin?
DNR regulates how much PFOA and PFOS can be released into the surface water (lakes, rivers, and streams and how much PFOA and PFOS can be in water served by public water systems. DNR also oversees the clean up of contaminated sites.
Since 2019, DHS has developed recommended groundwater standards for 18 PFAS at the request of DNR. DNR is currently working to adopt standards for four of these PFAS.
PFOA = 20*
PFOS = 20*
FOSA = 20*
NEtFOSA = 20*
NEtFOSAA = 20*
NetFOSE = 20*
PFNA = 30
PFHxS = 40
GenX = 300
PFDA = 300
PFDoA = 500
DONA = 3,000
PFUnA = 3,000
PFBA = 10,000
PFTeA = 10,000
PFHxA = 150,000
PFODA = 400,000
PFBS = 450,000
- All numbers are shown as nanograms of PFAS per liter of water (ng/L). This is equal to parts per trillion.
- DHS recommends a combined standard of 20 ng/L for PFOA, PFOS, FOSA, NEtFOSA, NEtFOSAA, and NEtFOSE.
- More information on these recommendations is available on our groundwater standards page.
DHS also uses a hazard index approach to assess the risk from mixtures of PFAS. This approach accounts for many types of PFAS that cause similar health effects when they are found together. This video is also available in Spanish. and Hmong.
- Our groundwater standards page has information on how Wisconsin's groundwater standards are set, DHS' role in the process, and a summary of the current and recommended standards including PFAS.
- The Wisconsin Groundwater Coordinating Council's Annual Report to the Legislature summarizes the actions that state agencies to address groundwater issues including PFAS.
- DNR's PFAS page has information on fish consumption advisories, current PFAS sites and investigations, and PFAS-related public meetings.
- DNR's PFAS Interactive Data Viewer shows locations throughout Wisconsin that have been impacted by PFAS.
- The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry's (ATSDR's) PFAS health effects page has additional information on what PFAS are, how people can be exposed, and how PFAS can affect health.
- ATSDR's ToxFAQs page also has information on PFAS exposure routes and health effects.
- The Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA's) Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS) page has information on the current scientific understanding of PFAS, actions that EPA is to address PFAS, and links to resources, data, and tools.
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