PFAS (per and polyfluoroalkyl substances), commonly known as ‘forever chemicals,’ are a group of chemicals initially developed in the 1930s for their non-stick properties, and over time have been used in a variety of products, including cookware, clothing, firefighting foams, housing materials and more. However, their health-related effects were unknown for many years. At the height of their use, they were released into our environment through use, disposal and distribution, and by the time their adverse health effects became widely known, the damage to our environment had already been done.
In 2016, as the awareness of the health concerns associated with PFAS really began to rise, NSF acted swiftly to develop the NSF testing protocol, NSF P473, to assess the ability of residential drinking water treatment devices to reduce PFOA and PFOS. By the following year, the testing protocol was validated and adopted into NSF/ANSI Standard 53 – Drinking Water Treatment Units – Health Effects and NSF/ANSI Standard 58 – Reverse Osmosis Drinking Water Treatment Systems, making them the first internationally recognized standards for validating point-of-use and point-of-entry water treatment devices for their effectiveness in reducing PFAS contamination in drinking water.
As the PFAS saga continues and we learn more about the number of variants, their associated health effects at incredibly low concentrations, and their prevalence in our public drinking water supply, it is no surprise that public concern has escalated. Everyone who drinks water is curious about the other PFAS compounds. While NSF Standards 53 and 58 already include reduction criteria for PFOA and PFOS to help address PFAS contamination in drinking water, the NSF/ANSI Joint Committee for Drinking Water Treatment Units (DWTU) has taken a step further by incorporating five additional compounds to the standard requirements.
Newly Added Compounds
The recent publication of the 2022 versions of NSF/ANSI 53 and NSF/ANSI 58 added the reduction criteria for five new PFAS compounds including, PFHxS, PFNA, PFHpA, PFBS, and PFDA, and revised the requirements for PFOA and PFOS based on current health advisory levels. As a result, a “Total PFAS” reduction claim is available, which includes PFOA, PFOS, PFHxS, PFNA, PFHpA, PFBS and PFDA.
The process of adding new PFAS variants and revising the limits for PFOA and PFOS was a significant undertaking that began with the DWTU Joint Committee proposing the updates to the standard to help incorporate current knowledge and lab testing capabilities into the world of drinking water standards. Developing test protocols and advancing analytical methods to accurately detect individual PFAS variants in parts per trillion on a consistent basis presented significant challenges, but after multiple rounds of validation studies and ballot votes, which included input from those in the industry who are affected by the standard, the updates passed the 90% approval vote that is required by the NSF Council of Public Health Consultants (CPHC). The obvious goal is to get these limits to as close to zero as possible, and this rigorous update to the standard is helping us get there.
As an industry, we are continuously uncovering new information that helps us better provide safe water and solutions to people across the globe. The initial development of the standards was a key step to aligning as an industry on what PFAS contaminants we could tackle, but there was room for additional components. At the 2020 Joint Committee meeting, the task group reported that they had successfully completed their work to identify additional emerging PFAS contaminants that were specified in the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Unregulated Contaminant Monitoring Rule (UCMR) 3, determined their relative toxicity and occurrence levels, and grouped them according to those criteria. This was the first step that led to the new addition of PFAS compounds to the standard, showing the fluidity of the NSF standards development process as new innovations and science are uncovered.
Industry standards are regularly reviewed and revised as necessary to help ensure they closely mirror the knowledge that we have on contaminants such as PFAS. The standards development process is a vital tool for establishing industry-recognized requirements that products need to meet to verify their claimed performance. Furthermore, NSF’s independent third-party testing and certification provides assurance that standardized and rigorous scientific methods back a product’s marketing material and stated claims.
Consumer Confidence in the Wake of PFAS
PFAS is an emerging area within the water industry, and the more we look, the more we find. It is becoming more common to hear of discoveries of PFAS chemicals in water throughout the world, and the unfortunate reality is that “PFAS” has become a global concern. Rightfully so, considering they bioaccumulate in our bodies, easily accumulate in our groundwater, and cause numerous adverse health effects, including cancer, immune system reduction, thyroid issues and more.
While the communal resources of the water treatment world – including public health officials, public water treatment facilities, scientists, engineers, and water filtration experts – are engaged in finding ways to deal with and eradicate PFAS contamination, devices certified by NSF for the reduction of PFAS are an immediately available solution for limiting personal exposure to these contaminants.
One of the best ways for people to protect themselves from these harmful compounds is to utilize water filters that carry third-party certification to ensure that they meet the rigorous standard requirements. This is especially helpful for users that rely on unmonitored water sources. The recent update to NSF/ANSI Standards 53 and 58 is the next step in providing a high degree of consumer confidence that certified products work as advertised and across a range of compounds.