Water Talk - Drinking Water and Perfluoroalkylated Substances

April 2019

Perfluoroalkylated substances (PFAS)

Perfluoroalkylated substances (PFAS) are synthetic chemicals, the most common being perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA). PFAS are used in a wide variety of industrial and consumer products such as adhesives, cosmetics, cleaning products, and in specialized chemical applications, such as fire-fighting foams. PFAS are also used in water-, stain-, and oil-repellent coatings for fabrics and paper. Environmental concentrations of PFAS may be higher in areas near facilities that use large amounts of these chemicals, and near locations where fire-fighting foams containing PFAS were used to put out a fire.

Short-term exposure to PFAS in drinking water at levels slightly higher than the maximum acceptable concentrations (MAC) or screening values, below, is not expected to result in health effects as these values are based on a lifetime of exposure to the substance. Potential health risks from exposure significantly above these values depend on how much PFAS a person was exposed to, and for how long he/she was exposed. High levels of PFAS have been linked with negative health effects in animal studies, including liver damage and impacts on neurological development. However, there is little information available on human health risks associated with PFAS.

Activities like bathing, showering, washing dishes, brushing teeth and doing laundry do not pose a health concern. PFAS stay in the water, so you can't breathe them in and they won't be absorbed through the skin.

Ingesting water, such as through drinking, using it in food preparation and in infant formula, does not pose a health risk so long as the levels of PFAS in drinking water do not exceed the MACs or screening values over an extended period of time.

Guidelines for Canadian Drinking Water Quality for PFOS and PFOA

Health Canada's drinking water guideline values apply to water intended for human consumption. Only PFOS and PFOA have been studied sufficiently to develop Guideline Technical Documents under the Guidelines for Canadian Drinking Water Quality.

When guideline values are developed, Health Canada includes a margin of safety (or 'buffer zone'). As such, guideline values such as maximum acceptable concentrations (MACs) are established at a level designed to protect the health of Canadians, including children, based on a lifetime's exposure to the substance.

Table 1 - Guidelines for Canadian drinking water quality - MACs for PFOS and PFOA
PFAS Name Acronym Maximum acceptable concentration (MAC) (milligrams/litre) (mg/L) Maximum acceptable concentration(MAC) (micrograms/litre) (µg/L)
perfluorooctanoic acid PFOA 0.0002 0.2
perfluorooctane sulfonate PFOS 0.0006 0.6

Water quality Testing Results for PFOS and PFOA

The health effects of PFOS and PFOA are similar and well documented. Based on recent science (2018), we know that PFOS and PFOA affect the same organ in similar ways. Thus, when PFOS and PFOA are found together in drinking water, the best approach to protect human health is to consider both chemicals together when comparing test results to the maximum acceptbale concentrations (MAC).

This is done by adding the ratio of the monitoring result for PFOS to its MAC with the ratio of the monitoring result for PFOA to its MAC; if the result is below or equal to one, then the water is considered safe for drinking. Science currently does not justify the use of this approach for other PFAS.

If water test results show concentrations of PFOS or PFOA above their respective MACs noted in Table 1, or if the sum of the ratios is greater than one as described above, there are treatment systems available that can remove PFAS from drinking water.

Health Canada's Drinking Water Screening Values for Other PFAS

Health Canada's drinking water screening values (DWSV) are provided as guidance, and apply to water intended for human consumption. They are developed at the request of a federal department or a province or territory when there is a need for a quick response, and there are no existing formal guidelines. Because of the need for a quick response, screening values are a rapid assessment to help an organization identify a level at which no health effects are expected. They are based on a limited review of existing science and don't undergo peer review or public consultation as would formal guidelines. However, they are still based on similar risk assessment approaches as formal guidelines. Screening values are based on available scientific studies, as well as assessments conducted by other jurisdictions.

Health Canada has developed screening values for a number of other PFAS at the request of several jurisdictions. As with formal guidelines, when screening values are developed, Health Canada includes a margin of safety (or 'buffer zone'). As such, screening values are also established at a level designed to protect the health of Canadians, including children, based on a lifetime's exposure to the substance.

Scientific information is limited on the majority of PFAS. The drinking water screening values for most other PFAS were developed using PFOS and PFOA as surrogates, whereas they are expected to be less toxic because of their chemical structure.

Table 2 - Health Canada drinking water screening values - other PFAS
Pfas name Acronym Drinking water
screening value
(milligrams/litre) (mg/L)
Drinking water
screening value
(micrograms/litre) (µg/L)
perfluorobutanoate PFBA 0.03 30
perfluorobutane sulfonate PFBS 0.015 15
perfluorohexanesulfonate PFHxS 0.0006 0.6
perfluoropentanoate PFPeA 0.0002 0.2
perfluorohexanoate PFHxA 0.0002 0.2
perfluoroheptanoate PFHpA 0.0002 0.2
perfluorononanoate PFNA 0.00002 0.02
6:2 fluorotelomer sulfonate 6:2 FTS 0.0002 0.2
8:2 fluorotelomer sulfonate 8:2 FTS 0.0002 0.2

Water quality testing results and the screening values for other pfas

Exposure to PFAS in drinking water is not considered to pose a risk to Canadians if levels fall below the Health Canada screening values outlined above.

If your drinking water testing results for other PFAS are above the screening values noted in Table 2, there are treatment systems available that can remove PFAS from drinking water.

Treatment options for PFAS

PFAS can be removed by treating well water: using either an activated carbon filter installed at the tap or where the water enters the house; or using a reverse osmosis system installed at the drinking water tap. Reverse osmosis systems should only be installed at the tap, as the treated water may cause corrosion to the plumbing and cause other contaminants, like heavy metals, to leach into the water.

Before you install a treatment system, your water should be tested for the presence and concentration of PFAS. Once the system is in place, you should have both the water entering the system and the treated water tested periodically to ensure the system is, and continues to be effective.

For more information:

Guidelines for Canadian Drinking Water Quality for PFOS and PFOA:

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