Per- and polyfluorinated chemicals (PFC)

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Updated on: 03/24/2020

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Plastics in drinking water: Can water filters protect against perfluorinated chemicals?

Water and also drinking water is repeatedly contaminated by plastics and chemicals. Particularly feared are so-called perfluorinated chemicals such as PFC (perfluorinated tensides) and PTFE (Teflon).

Even strict drinking water protection regulations cannot prevent water contamination. Water filters with activated carbon provide a remedy here.

But what are these dangerous chemicals and how does protection by water filters work?

Activated carbon against PFC chemicals in water. Harmful to health.

PFC chemicals in drinking water: Impregnated clothing, fire extinguisher foam or coated pans use PFC compounds that are harmful to the human organism.

Activated carbon against PFC chemicals in water. Harmful to health.

PFC chemicals in drinking water: Impregnated clothing, fire extinguisher foam or coated pans use PFC compounds that are harmful to the human organism.

PFAS: Omnipresent and a dangerous environmental toxin

The plastics PFC and PTFE belong to the so-called PFAS (per- and polyfluorinated substances). Per- and polyfluorinated alkyl compounds are organic compounds that do not occur in nature and are manufactured industrially.

PFAS are a burden on national budgets due to high health costs, and some substances are suspected of being carcinogenic. PFCs are used intensively in the textile industry or, for example, as fire-fighting foam. Perfluorooctanoic acid, PFOA, is used in the production of Teflon, which can cause serious damage to health.

Because of the earlier use of PFOA, the Teflon manufacturer DuPont in the USA was sentenced to high damages.

A major problem is the durability of these plastics. They accumulate in humans, animals and the environment. Due to the hazardous nature of the substance PFOA, it may no longer be produced as of July 2020 as a result of proceedings by the EU Commission.

PFOA Contamination: The Teflon Scandal

Teflon has been produced without hesitation for a long time. It was not until a spectacular trial in West Virginia, which revealed that the acid PFOA used in the production process caused damage or death to several people and animals, that a change in thinking was initiated. This environmental scandal, also known as "American Chernobyl", was even taken up in the Hollywood feature film "Dark Waters" in 2019. In it, Robert Bilott, the lawyer played by Mark Ruffalo, represents over 3,500 plaintiffs and exposes abuses in the system of state environmental control.

Bilott's real fight became known in 2016 through an article in the New York Times Magazine. In Germany, the film, entitled "Poisoned Truth", will be released in cinemas on April 16, 2020. Due to decades of use, PFOA can be found practically everywhere in the world.

Dark waters, poisoned truth. A film about the DuPont drinking water scandal


PFOA scandals in Germany: contamination of drinking water

In Germany, too, there have been PFOA scandals that have been accompanied by contamination of drinking water. Despite strict regulations, there is no guarantee that drinking water in Germany is PFOA-free. There is also Teflon in water. Well known is the PFOA scandal of Altötting1. Until 2008, PFOA entered the environment and drinking water through a chemical park near Gendorf. As late as 2018, an environmental report determined that the limit values of the drinking water commission's guideline values for drinking water would be exceeded in the long term2 In the vicinity of Altötting in the municipality of Haiming, an activated carbon filter was already installed in the well in 2009, as a result of which the PFOA value dropped towards zero3.

The PFC scandal in Rastatt, Baden-Wuerttemberg, is also worrying. In 2012, arable land contaminated by compost led to the contamination of drinking water. As a result, the German government also became aware of this environmental problem and invited tenders for research projects. The guideline values for PFCs in drinking water were tightened, but these are not legal limits. In the waterworks, for example, activated carbon filters were used at the energy plants in Rastatt. In the meantime, the water in Mittelbaden should be uncontaminated4. However, according to another report in the Mittelbadische Zeitung , whether the danger has really been averted may be doubted, because the region is home to one of the largest "aquifers in Europe". Due to the ongoing pollution, new wells had to be drilled and new filter systems installed.5.

Despite increased attention from politicians, it is therefore not impossible that perfluorinated substances will find their way into drinking water in the future. The reason is the ubiquitous distribution of these substances. These surfactants are also easily soluble in water. The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has set a lifelong intake limit of 1.5 µg/kg body weight for PFOA. This value was exceeded in Baden Württemberg6.

The Federal Environment Agency also points out cases in the Hochsauerlandkreis. A study by the Ruhr University of Bochum, for example, showed an increased concentration of PFC in the blood of the inhabitants of Arnsberg. In a publication, the Federal Environmental Agency writes: "This study proves that drinking water is a source of absorption of the perfluorinated chemicals and that they accumulate in the human organism.

Standard values for the load by PFC

As early as 2006, the Federal Environment Agency had already drawn detailed attention to limit values and exceedances of the limit values for perfluorinated surfactants (PFT) and the chemical PFOA in a statement by the Drinking Water Commission. With regard to PFT, a "lifelong tolerable drinking water conductance value of 0.3 µg/L PFC is specified.
However, the limit value must be considered in a differentiated manner, as one must also distinguish between different groups of people. The reference values for PFOA of the Human Biomonitoring Commission of the Federal Environment Agency are available for this purpose. Since there are also many unanswered questions regarding the danger of these chemicals to humans, the Federal Environment Agency recommends "continuing to closely monitor and follow up on PFCs.7 Special attention will certainly be paid to the cancer-causing effect of these substances, which has been clearly proven by the DuPont scandal in the USA. For example, one of Robert Bilott's clients was seriously ill with kidney cancer.

PFCs in tap water: The Federal Environment Agency recommends continuing to monitor the situation closely

How can I protect myself against PFC and PTFE in water?

To clean drinking water from chemical residues such as PFC and PTFE, a water filter with activated carbon is required. The water must be filtered. Activated carbon filters are also used for groundwater purification. Here the pollutants are absorbed by the surface of the activated carbon. So-called Van-der-Waals forces ensure the accumulation of the substances to be removed at the "interface between solid and fluid phase".

This method has been scientifically proven to be the most effective method to remove such organic compounds to below the detection limit. Alternatively, ion exchange, flocculation or membrane processes are used as further methods8

The water filter in the household also works with the method of absorption or physisorption. When the carbon is saturated, the activated carbon filters must be changed regularly. In the drinking water filter of the company Alb® Filter, for example, the activated carbon filter is located in the drinking water cartridge. Plastics in the water can thus be easily removed with a filter system in the household.


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