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PFAS, forever chemicals, study
A recent USGS study sampling hundreds of drinking water sources around the nation found at least one PFAS “forever chemical” in 45% of samples. Some had more than one of the potentially toxic chemicals. But there are ways to filter them out. (USGS)

The best time for a helpful consumer guide from experts is right after a consumer scare from experts. Environmental Working Group and the U.S. Geological Survey have come through on both regarding the  dangers from PFAS “forever chemicals” in Colorado and U.S. tap water. 

A July study from USGS of hundreds of drinking water agencies and private wells in every state found at least one of the toxic forever chemicals in 45% of samples. The PFAS variants found — there are thousands — included PFOA and PFOS, the limits of which the EPA revised sharply downward this year to four parts per trillion. 

The study’s rollout in the August edition of the journal Environment International was quickly followed, coincidentally, by the nonprofit Environmental Working Group’s release of a consumer’s guide to filtering PFAS out of home tap water. We talked with EWG senior scientist Tasha Stoiber about their findings.

The Forever Problem

“Forever chemicals,” or PFAS, are an increasing toxic burden on Colorado. We’re committed to covering the public health threats, from water and croplands to the costs to clean them up.

>> Find more coverage

What can consumers do about PFAS in their drinking water? 

“The first step is awareness,” Stoiber said. She recommends homeowners and renters first check EWG’s interactive map of PFAS test results from contaminated sites around the country. They can also go to the website of their local water provider, as they post their PFAS results with clear explanations. Consumers with private wells can often use state-supported programs or information sites to link up with testing. Here is one for Colorado.  

Should everyone be filtering their drinking water for “forever chemicals”? 

Environmental Working Group says “yes.” State governments have varying advice, but it often comes down to, if you’re worried, why not? Home filters can take out lead coming through old city water lines, chlorine, and smells and tastes from some municipal supplies that are not dangerous but can make home water unpleasant. Many can now take out all or most of the PFAS as well. 

“The emotional burden of worrying about this, obviously should not fall onto consumers, it should fall onto communities,” Stoiber said. “This is a regulatory failure that the drinking water has become so contaminated, and we do need top-down solutions, of course, and it should be the polluters that pay. But in the meantime, if people have questions about what filters remove, this testing was designed to answer those questions and to give people an idea of what can be effective for a quick solution.”

How can you filter PFAS from your tap water? 

The most effective way is also the most expensive: An installed under-sink water filter with optimal water cleaning can run up to $1,000, and the water is not chilled. 

EWG instead tested a number of pitcher-style filters. They look similar to the most popular brand, Brita, and to the pitchers given away by Denver Water to neighborhoods that may wait years to have their lead water lines replaced. But the replaceable filters they tested have been upgraded to target PFAS as well. 

“Pitcher filters have gotten a little bit more advanced, and I think there are some good options for people,” Stoiber said.  

Which pitcher filters effectively — and affordably — filter PFAS? 

“Four water filters reduced the PFAS in the water used in our testing by 100% or came close, offering a great boost to your efforts to protect your family’s health,” EWG’s report says. 

  • The Travel Berkey filter, online for $344, got a top rating for removing 100% of PFAS traces EWG found in pre-filtered tap water. EWG calculates the first-year cost of each product, when taking into account the pitcher cost and whatever number of replacement filters that brand needs in one year of average use. The Travel Berkey filter should last up to eight years, or 6,000 gallons. 
  • Clearly Filtered offers one of the other tested pitchers that removed 100% of the PFAS, according to EWG. Testers also liked the large pitcher size. It’s expensive to operate for the first year once replacement filters are factored in, at $436.50, however. The water passes through the filter more slowly than on other pitchers, and priming the filter the first time can pose challenges for those living with disabilities, EWG said. 
  • ZeroWater’s pitcher had a low purchase cost at $25, but takes a lot of replacement filters and consumes $646 to operate for the first year. It does remove all the PFAS tested, however. 
  • Epic Pure was a tester favorite at $247.87 to run for the first year. They liked the large pitcher volume and easy refilling, as well as easy filter replacement. The system removed 98% of the PFAS found in the sample water.  
  • The EWG report does sample other brands of pitchers, without recommending them as highly. The brand name you’ve likely heard of, Brita, gets good marks for affordability and convenience, but only removes 66% of the PFAS, which EWG calls “better than nothing” but not optimal. 

Stoiber notes that after years of terrible news about the spread of PFAS and the high costs of removing it from centralized water systems, there’s some hope with the EPA’s new stricter standards and lawsuits recovering cleanup costs from the chemical manufacturers. EWG would like consumers to keep thinking about the bigger picture, alongside bigger pitchers. 

“Speak up to local officials,” Stoiber said. “It should be asked of them, what is our community doing to improve the drinking water in our area? Do we have contamination, and are we tackling that at the community level?”

Michael Booth is The Sun’s environment writer, and co-author of The Sun’s weekly climate and health newsletter The Temperature. He and John Ingold host the weekly Sun-Up podcast on The Temperature topics every Thursday. He is co-author with...