PFAS and Swimming

The following are answers to questions about swimming at public beaches where PFAS has been detected in the water, but the waterbody has been determined to be safe for swimming.

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Here we provide answers to questions about the use of beaches when Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) have been detected in the water and the Department of Public Health (DPH) has determined that the waterbody is safe for swimming.

What are PFAS?

PFAS are a group of chemicals used since the 1950s to manufacture stain-resistant, water-resistant, and non-stick products. PFAS are widely used in common consumer products such as food packaging, outdoor clothing, coatings, carpets, leather goods, and other products. They have also been used in firefighting foam, as well is in other industrial processes.

Can I swim in water that may have PFAS levels above a safe level in drinking water? How can I limit my exposure while swimming?

Potential exposure to PFAS while swimming would be much less than exposure from drinking water or eating fish containing PFAS. This is because PFAS are not readily absorbed through the skin and only small amounts of water may be accidentally swallowed while swimming.  Although typical contact with the water while occasionally swimming should not be a health concern, it is important, to avoid, as much as possible, accidentally swallowing water.  If you have young children, you should monitor them while they’re in the water to limit the amount of water they swallow. You should also limit time in the water if your skin has cuts, abrasions, or open wounds.

How are people exposed to PFAS?

While consumer products and food are a large source of exposure for most people, drinking water can also be a source in communities where these chemicals have contaminated the water supplies. Such contamination is typically localized and associated with a specific facility (e.g., an industrial facility where these chemicals were produced or used to manufacture other products or where firefighting foam was used). Eating fish from surface waterbodies that are contaminated with PFAS can also be a source of exposure.

Please visit our information pages about PFAS in Drinking Water and PFAS in Recreationally Caught Fish to learn more about exposure to PFAS through these pathways. 

How can PFAS affect my health?

There are many gaps in the current scientific literature, but it is believed that PFAS may affect human health. Some of the research about health effects of PFAS is based on animal studies, and scientists are still unsure of the difference between how animals and humans respond to PFAS. PFAS exposure has been associated with changes in liver and kidney function, changes in thyroid hormone and cholesterol levels, immune system effects, and reduced fertility. During pregnancy, PFAS may cause small changes in birthweight, and increased maternal blood pressure. 

Several animal and human studies have identified a link between PFAS and cancer. The EPA reports that PFOA is likely to increase the risk of cancer in humans and that there is suggestive evidence that PFOS can increase the risk of cancer. Both the EPA and the National Toxicology Program are continuing research on the cancer potential of PFAS. 

It’s important to keep in mind that the likelihood of experiencing health effects associated with PFAS depends on the amount of PFAS that a person has been exposed to. It’s also important to keep in mind that health effects associated with PFAS are not specific to just PFAS – they can also be caused by many other factors. As a result, it is not possible to link a person’s exposure to PFAS with any former, current, or future health effects. If you have specific health concerns, you should consult with your medical provider.

What can I do to limit my exposure to PFAS?

If PFAS contamination has been identified in drinking water in your community, there are several ways to reduce exposure such as drinking and cooking with bottled water that has been tested and found free of PFAS; using pre-mixed baby formula; using PFAS-free bottled water for reconstituting powdered formula; or installing a point of use or point of entry treatment device.

To limit your exposure to PFAS identified in fish, DPH recommends  following fish consumption advice for the specific waterbody where PFAS has been identified.  Although typical contact with the water while fishing is not a health concern, you should also limit time in the water if your skin has cuts, abrasions, or open wounds.

Who can I contact if I have more questions about this issue in Massachusetts?

Please contact the Environmental Toxicology Program at the Massachusetts Department of Public Health at (617) 624-5757.

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