New Study Finds PFAS in Bottled Water, as Lawmakers Call for Federal Limits
'Purified' bottled water was less likely than 'spring' water to contain the potentially dangerous compounds
Some noncarbonated bottled water products sold in the U.S. and tested as part of a new study contained potentially toxic PFAS chemicals, prompting calls for the federal government to set standards covering the chemicals.
The study, published in the journal Water Research and led by Johns Hopkins University researchers, detected PFAS substances in 39 out of more than 100 bottled waters tested, in some cases at levels deemed concerning by water quality experts.
The study did not identify which brands were tested. But the researchers did find that bottled waters labeled as “purified,” which are typically filtered through reverse osmosis, contained less PFAS overall than “spring” water, which is not filtered using that method.
The findings of this report redouble my determination to ensure bottled water is safe.
The Food and Drug Administration—which regulates bottled water in the U.S.—has not yet set limits on PFAS in bottled water. An FDA spokesperson says the agency is reviewing the study. But, the spokesperson said, the agency “believes that establishing a standard of quality for PFAS in bottled water at the time would not significantly enhance the FDA’s mission of public health protection.”
The Environmental Protection Agency, which regulates tap water, also has yet to set standards regarding PFAS, but it has issued voluntary guidance calling on water utilities to limit the presence of PFAS to 70 parts per trillion. Some scientists believe a much lower limit of 1 ppt is appropriate.
Overall, 19 brands tested in the Water Research study contained more than 1 ppt of PFAS.
The International Bottled Water Association, a trade group that represents numerous bottled water manufacturers, has PFAS standards in place that its members must adhere to: no more than 5 ppt for any single PFAS compound, and a total of 10 ppt for more than one.
Jill Culora, spokesperson for the IBWA, says the vast majority of brands tested by the Johns Hopkins researchers contained PFAS results “well below” her organization’s standard of 5 ppt for one PFAS. Three samples exceeded the IBWA’s combined limit of 10 ppt.
“As this study has found, the majority of bottled water does not contain any per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances,” she says.
Nevertheless, Culora says the IBWA supports a request made last month by a bipartisan group of lawmakers who called on the FDA to enact legally enforceable PFAS standards. In a letter to the agency, the lawmakers—led by Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn.—said many consumers turn to bottled water if their tap water becomes contaminated by chemicals such as PFAS. (The FDA spokesperson says the agency is reviewing the letter and will respond to the lawmakers.)
“Unconscionably, there are currently no set federal limits on these harmful chemicals in bottled water, despite their severe health risks,” Blumenthal tells CR, adding that the “findings of this report redouble my determination to ensure bottled water is safe.”
The new study in particular pointed to concerns about newer PFAS compounds now being introduced by some manufacturers.
PFAS are made up of a chain link of carbon and fluorine atoms. Over the past two decades, manufacturers have begun phasing out so-called long-chain PFAS—defined as those with six or more carbon atoms—which have been extensively studied and linked to an array of health problems. Instead of those better-known chemicals, like PFOA and PFOS, many have begun using short-chain PFAS that industry groups believe are safer for the environment and public health.
But preliminary research suggests that short-chain and ultrashort-chain PFAS may present just as much of a risk to public health, says Michael Hansen, PhD, CR senior scientist.
This study shows that ultrashort-chain PFAS are quite abundant, relative to other PFAS, and should absolutely be tested for, so as to get a more accurate picture of total PFAS present.
The Water Research study tested for 32 types of PFAS and detected at least 15. The ultrashort-chain compound known as PFPrA accounted for 42 percent of all PFAS identified in the tests, according to the Johns Hopkins researchers.
Hansen says ultrashort-chain PFAS appear to be highly mobile, especially in water; persistent in the environment; and toxic.
“This study shows that ultrashort-chain PFAS are quite abundant, relative to other PFAS, and should absolutely be tested for, so as to get a more accurate picture of total PFAS present,” Hansen says.
What to Know
One key takeaway from the new study is that bottled waters labeled as “purified” contained “significantly less PFAS” than spring water products, according to the study, which the researchers attributed to the use of treatment techniques such as reverse osmosis.
Steven Chow, a postdoctoral researcher at Johns Hopkins who co-authored the study, says their findings suggest that PFAS levels in bottled water are generally low. But a rigorous testing regimen of source water supplies by regulators would help ensure that bottled water products with elevated levels of PFAS are kept out of the marketplace, he says.
In 2019, for example, Massachusetts regulators warned the public about bottled spring water sourced from a spring on a farm in the state and sold at Whole Foods Market and CVS, after tests revealed elevated levels of PFAS in products on store shelves.
“We think it’s prudent to have a testing framework in place to ensure those sorts of samples aren’t available to consumers in the marketplace,” Chow says.
CR’s Hansen recommends that if consumers are concerned about the presence of PFAS in bottled water, they should look for products that have been processed using treatments such as reverse osmosis. Purified bottled water is generally treated this way.