Perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, also known as PFAS, have attracted increasing awareness and concern from the public over the past several years.
The chemicals are commonly used in everyday products such as nonstick pans and cookware, rain jackets, carpeting and firefighting foam. They are widely known as “forever chemicals,” meaning they do not break down easily in a natural setting.
When humans are exposed to PFAS, there is an increased risk of kidney and testicular cancer, low infant birth weight, decreased vaccine response in children and high cholesterol.
Frank Leibfarth, a chemistry professor at UNC, said drinking water is the most common way in which humans are exposed to PFAS. He added that the chemicals can contaminate the drinking water supply via wastewater runoff from industrial sites and homes where products containing PFAS are produced and used respectively.
Karsten Baumann, a professor in UNC's Department of Environmental Science and Engineering, said PFAS are particularly dangerous because they are “volatile,” meaning the chemicals can be released easily through air and water.
Baumann explained that products with PFAS are attractive to consumers because they make surfaces easier to clean and are resistant to stains.
“'Non-stick, non-stain, easy to clean' — that means they have been treated with some kind of Teflon-type material and coating,” Baumann said.
He said Teflon material contains PFAS and the everyday use of these products further contaminates surrounding air and water.
The Orange Water and Sewer Authority regularly tests for more than 150 chemical compounds in its water supply and summarizes these findings in an annual report. OWASA spokesperson Blake Hodge said the water supply in Cane Creek and University Lake meets all current environmental regulations.