How to Remove PFAS from Water: Does RO Work?

Why is it important to know how to remove PFAS from water?

There are different contaminants present in the water, including lead, viruses, bacteria, as well as other pollutants and chemicals that could cause illnesses among humans. Among the list of such contaminants includes PFAS which is short for per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances.

Despite the fact that PFAS was found in bottled waters several years back in “toxic levels”, its exposure may also reach your public water or well water supply. In our guide today, we will be talking about what PFAS are and how to remove PFAS from water.

What Are PFAS (Per and Polyfluorinated Substances)?

PFAS are man-made chemicals that are characterized by their strong carbon-fluoride bonds like PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid), PFOS (perfluorooctanesulfonic acid), and GenX. These types of chemicals are known as “forever chemicals” since they do not break down.

The chemicals were widely used in factories, military bases, airports, and industrial sites in the United States for a long time until it was recently discovered that they were being released into the air. The release resulted in widespread environmental pollution of the earth, air, and water sources.

The two most common and yet dangerous PFAS are PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid) and PFOS (perfluorooctane sulfonic acid) – both of which have been phased out of use since the discovery of their toxicity.

These chemicals were traditionally used in a range of common consumer products such as non-stick kitchenware, paper, paint, cleaning products, stain repellents, food packaging, and water-resistant clothing.

Both PFOA and PFAS agave toxic bioaccumulation properties and could linger in the environment for years. This makes it highly probable that most humans are already or are currently being exposed to them.

Are PFAS Natural? If Not, Where do They Come From?

PFAS are synthetic chemicals and are largely used in human activity. The main sources of PFAS chemicals are PFAS processing and manufacturing factories, airports and military bases that use fire fighting foams with this chemical.

How Did PFAS Get Into Our Water?

There are several ways for PFAS to enter our water. Those who live in close proximity to a factory that produces or releases PFAS chemicals as a by-product could potentially have PFAS in their water if the factory does not dispose of the chemical properly.

PFOS or PFOA could also contaminate water sources through surface runoff for those who live close to an airfield, military base or oil refinery where firefighting foam containing PFOS or PFOA are used.

In fact, research conducted in 2016 found that more than 6 million United States citizens are drinking water containing PFAS that exceed EPA’s public recommendations. This is why it is critical that you have your water tested for the chemical and ensure you install a suitable water treatment system for safe and healthy drinking water.

What Are the Health Risks Associated with PFAS?

PFAS are known for their toxicity and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has produced a non-enforceable health advisory level for the maximum contaminant level of PFOS and PFAS in water to be less than 70 parts per trillion (ppt).

Some of the common health risks associated with consuming PFAS in drinking water are:


Research indicates that PFOA and PFOS consumption from drinking water have the potential to increase the risk of cancerous tumours in human. PFAS contamination has even been labelled as carcinogenic to human body. Exposure to PFAS could increase the likelihood to develop testicular, kidney, and liver cancer.

Immune System Effects

Studies conducted on animals found that exposure to PFAS could reduce their immune system’s ability to respond to pathogen threats in the body, hence reducing resistance or protection against the disease. Not only that, but PFAS exposure may even prevent your body from producing the level of antibodies required in response to vaccination, which could be particularly worrying when it comes to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Thyroid Hormone Disruption

Other studies have also found that PFOA and PFOS in blood may disrupt endocrine function, preventing proper functioning of thyroid. According to the data, PFOS or PFOA may result in the accumulation, cytotoxicity, genotoxicity, interference with TH synthesis, TPO function and iodine update of thyroid cells.

Low Birth Rate

A study conducted also found that parents of a developing infant exposed to high levels of PFAS could potentially cause their infant to have stunted growth for the first two years of their life. Furthermore, PFOA and PFOS exposure has been linked to a decreased likelihood of pregnancy in women.

Is It Possible To Test for PFAS in Water?

PFOA and PFAS are not visible to the human eye, they also do not have a distinct taste or odour, making them extremely detectable. This means that you could be drinking a glass of water with PFOS and PFOS at dangerously high levels without even knowing.

The most effective way to know whether your water contains PFAS is to send a sample of water to a state certified laboratory for some testing.

The laboratory will thoroughly analyze your water and provide you with a detailed report that includes the exact levels of PFOS and PFAS present in your water. You can choose to have your water tested for PFOS or PFOA individually or have them both tested together.

The cost of a state-certified laboratory testing will be within the range of $100 to $300. Though the testing might not be cheap for some, it’s critical to get your water tested for the sake of you and your family’s health.

An alternative to check whether your water contains PFAS is a DIY at-home test kit that will indicate whether your tap water contains the chemical. However, it won’t provide you the level of depth you need to know whether the water is safe for consumption or not.

Can PFAS be filtered from Drinking Water?

Once you’ve done your testing and confirmed that your water does indeed contain high levels of PFOA and PFOS, the next step is to get a water treatment system to effectively remove them from your drinking water. When it comes to PFOA and PFOS removal, there are a few options that you can consider:

Activated Carbon Filters

The first water treatment that can help you remove PFOA and PFOS would be using activated carbon filters. This type of filter comes with granular activated carbon or solid carbon block cartridges that are effective at removing such chemicals from household drinking water sources.

In fact, EPA has recommended activated carbon filters as the first and most studied water treatment option to consider for PFAS contamination.

A granular activated carbon water filter adsorbs water contaminants such as chlorine, lead, and PFAS. Since it is highly porous and has a large surface area, activated carbon can trap larger contaminants in the filter pores to allow only smaller water particles to pass through, making them an effective filtration option.

According to an EPA researcher, granular activated carbon can provide 100% effectiveness in PFAS removal for a limited period of time. However, this also depends on the water temperature, flow rate, depth of caron bed, and the types of PFAS you need to remove.

Nonetheless, the market is saturated with different granular activated carbon treatment technologies available for you to choose from including whole-house filter, under-sink, pitcher, and countertop filters.

Ion Exchange Systems

Another effective water treatment solution for PFAS is the ion exchange system. An ion exchange system is equipped with a tank filled with anion exchange resin, which is typically made from insoluble hydrocarbons. Speaking of ion exchange resins, there are two types: anionic and cationic resins.

Cationic resins are negatively charged resins that can effectively remove positively charged impurities. Anionic resins, on the other hand, are positively charged to remove negatively charged impurities. Both resins essentially work like magnets – they attract specific contaminants, which will stick to their surfaces and not pass out of the tank.

PFAS are typically negatively charged, which makes anionic resins the better choice for removing PFOS. Using an ion exchange system with anionic resins offers higher capacity compared to activated carbon treatment, but it comes at a higher upfront cost.

And just like a granulated activated carbon system, the effectiveness of PFAS removal depends on the flow rate, water temperature, depth and quality of resin bed, as well as other contaminants present in your drinking water.

Reverse Osmosis Systems

Reverse osmosis is one of the most thorough water filters available today that can remove a wide range of contaminants from water.

The RO process involves pumping high pressure water through a semi-permeable membrane with tiny pores of around 0.0005 micron. The membrane size is much smaller than PFAS, which means that the reverse osmosis process will block PFAS compounds from going through.

The RO treatment can significantly reduce PFOA and PFOS levels in drinking water – up to 90%. The lingering PFAS and other trace contaminants in water that were captured by the reverse osmosis filter will be released down a drain, so only pure water reaches your tap.

While reverse osmosis treatment can effectively remove a lot of contaminants, it does produce a significant portion of wastewater – around 20% of water used due to the system’s design. Nonetheless, if you want an effective water treatment to remove PFAS as well as other contaminants, GO is definitely the treatment to go for.

Reverse osmosis filters can be installed at the point of entry to your house, at the main water line, to provide whole house filtration. Alternatively, you can also get smaller point-of-use units that are typically installed beneath your kitchen sink to provide clean, filtered drinking water.

There are even advanced RO treatment options that are standalone countertop units and don’t require being connected to your waterline at all.

All in all, SO technology is quite easy to maintain. All you need is to change out the filter cartridges once a year and RO membranes every 2 years.

Best Filter Recommendation for PFOS and PFOA Removal

Now that we have talked about the different filter options you can consider for treating PFOS and PFOA in drinking water, the next step for you is to pick the right choice for you. The best filter for your home will depend on personal preference and on what contaminants you want to remove from your water.

If your main water concern is PFAS chemicals and need a treatment system to remove it, then carbon filtration or ion exchange may be the right choice for you.

However, if you’re looking for a system that can help you remove PFAS chemicals and purify your drinking water by removing other contaminants, then reverse osmosis filters may be the better option to ensure you get completely safe water with minimal health effects from a broad range of contaminants.

Another important aspect to your choice of water filter will be the budget allocated for it. If you’re on a relatively tight budget, then your options in which systems are available to you will certainly be limited.

Reverse osmosis filters are the most comprehensive, but they happen to also be the most expensive choice among water treatment systems. Those with a tight budget can opt for carbon filters which are generally available in a broader range of options, including some that are much more affordable than others.

Before deciding on which is the best water treatment to install in your house, it is essential that you run a water quality test to find out what’s present in your water. Once you know exactly what contaminants are in your water, you can begin to identify suitable water treatment options that can help you effectively address the problem.

Many whole-home filters and point-of-use treatment technologies are designed to filter out more than just PFOS and PFAS. Common contaminants in tap water include lead, chlorine, arsenic, and VOCs, each of which have their own maximum contaminant advisory level issued by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) thanks to their potential health effects to human. Hence, many tap water treatment systems are designed to tackle multiple contaminants in one go to deliver clean, safe, and healthy water.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is PFAS?

PFAS is a synthetic chemical that’s characterized by its strong carbon-fluoride bond. This chemical was often used in various industries such as non-stick kitchenware, paper, paint, cleaning products, stain repellents, food packaging, and water-resistant clothing.

This chemical is known as a “forever chemical” since it takes hundreds of years to breakdown. This results in an accumulation of such chemicals in our environment that are difficult to get rid of.

What does a product with an NSF International for PFAS removal certification mean?

Products with an NSF International 53 or 58 certification means that the product was independently tested and has proven capable of reducing PFOA or PFOS to less than 70% as outlined by the Environmental Protection Agency.

Purchasing products with these certifications offer consumers a greater vote of confidence as you can be certain that what you’re getting is capable of performing as advertised. You can also check out NSF’s certification listings to view the full list of products certified to remove PFOA and PFOS.

Does distilling water remove PFAS?

There are a few technologies that are capable of removing PFAS. One example is the distillation process. Distillation is found to be highly effective against PFAS – even more so than a filter. But the major downside to adopting the distillation process is that a distiller could take up to 4 hours just to produce a single batch of chemical-free water, making this the least convenient option for those who want fast and easy clean water.

Can boiling water remove PFAS?

Unfortunately, boiling water does not remove PFOS and PFOA as the chemical cannot be removed via evaporation. In fact, boiling your tap water could increase the concentration of PFAS in tap water since you’re removing water from it, resulting in the same concentration of PFAS in a smaller batch of water.

Can reverse osmosis remove PFOS and PFAS?

Yes, reverse osmosis is an effective PFAS treatment solution that can significantly remove up to 90% of PFAS from your water. The reverse osmosis process involves sending high pressure water through a semi-permeable membrane with micron size much smaller than contaminants including PFAS. This means that the water filter only delivers clean and safe water to your tap.

How to know if I am at risk of PFAS exposure?

If you get your water from a municipal source, you can head to your local state to get more information on your water quality. However, keep in mind that the data they have is at the point of exit from their facility.

Contaminants can re-enter your water from the pipes and plumbing while on the way to your home. It is therefore recommended to send your water to a state-certified laboratory to run a water quality test in order to know what is present in your water.

Are PFAS found in bottled water?

Yes, PFAS have been found in bottled water and canned carbonated water. In fact, a recent study conducted by Consumers Reports tested 47 different brands of bottled and canned water and found that most had detectable levels of PFAS.

Nonetheless, the levels are less than the maximum contaminant level with 9 brands having had over 1 part per trillion PFAS concentration in their water.

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