Is PFAS in Plumber's Tape a Cause for Concern?
Is there a legitimate concern over PFAS used in plumber’s tape interacting with our drinking water? More research is needed, but here’s what we know.
- By Bruce Grabowski
- Apr 28, 2023
The widespread use of chemicals collectively known as polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) has become increasingly concerning for environmental industry professionals.
As the health risks associated with PFAS are now better understood, it is important to explore how they may infiltrate our drinking water supply.
This article will focus on a potential aspect of this problem; the role of PFAS in plumber's tape and its implications on tap water safety.
We will start by providing a brief explanation of PFAS and the properties that make them an environmental concern.
Then we'll explore current research on whether or not PFAS are found in plumber's tape, assess the safety risks associated with their presence in pipes carrying drinking water and discuss alternatives to plumber’s tape.
Spoiler Alert: This topic needs more expert attention and careful study, as conflicting opinions persist. It is our hope to raise more awareness and ultimately more investigation into this issue.
What are PFAS?
PFAS are a group of man-made chemicals that have been extensively used since the 1940s. These toxic “forever chemicals” can be found in non-stick cookware, water-repellent clothing, stain-resistant fabrics, firefighting foams and even some food packaging materials.
According to the EPA, “approximately 600 PFAS are manufactured (including imported) and/or used in the United States.”
The reason behind their widespread use lies in their unique properties such as resistance to heat, water, oil and stains. This manufactured chemical collective includes:
- PFOA: Perfluorooctanoic acid is one of the most studied types of PFAS. It has been used primarily as a processing aid for manufacturing fluoropolymers like Teflon.
- PFOS: Perfluorooctane sulfonate was commonly used as an ingredient in fire-fighting foam but its production has significantly reduced due to concerns about its environmental impact. Major manufacturers are backing away from it.
- GenX: This newer generation chemical was introduced as a replacement for PFOA but it's still under investigation regarding its safety profile.
The concern surrounding PFAS arises from their persistence in the environment and the potential health risks associated with exposure. This is exacerbated by a cumulative effect. As we absorb greater amounts of PFAS, we increase the risks associated with these chemicals.
Studies have linked these toxic chemicals to adverse health effects like liver damage, thyroid disease, decreased fertility rates among women, increased risk of certain cancers and developmental issues for children exposed during pregnancy or breastfeeding.
There are thousands of common items that contain PFAS. This article will focus on one overlooked and potential source known as plumber’s tape and its use in pipes carrying potable water in homes across the U.S.
To be clear, it is not yet certain to what extent a plumber’s tape plays a role, if any, in contributing to this problem. That’s why we’re talking about it.
Understanding PFAS in Plumber's Tape
Name Clarity: Time for Some Definitions. First off, plumber’s tape goes by many names. It is referred to as thread seal tape, Teflon tape and PTFE tape. All of these are appropriate and fitting, but there is some nuance to understand.
The main ingredient in this common plumbing product is polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE). This known PFA was historically manufactured by DuPont through a spin-off company called Chemours. It is a key ingredient in the creation of Teflon.
Originally, they licensed the use of the name Teflon to certain thread tape manufacturers who purchased their PTFE product. Hence the Teflon tape name “stuck” similar to how people refer to all tissues as Kleenex.
The catch-all generic name is technically thread tape or commonly plumber’s tape. Not all plumber’s tape uses the Teflon brand PTFE, however, all tape products do use PTFE. And, PTFE is a known PFA chemical.
The Role of Plumber’s Tape in Plumbing. Plumbers and DIYers alike routinely rely on plumber’s tape to form a watertight seal between threaded pipes. It creates a watertight seal by filling gaps between the threads. It works incredibly well, in fact.
The presence of PTFE gives the tape its characteristic non-stick properties, making it easy to apply and remove without damaging pipes or fittings.
Benefits of PFAS in Plumber’s Tape
Durability: The chemical stability provided by the PTFE PFAS ensures that the plumber's tape maintains its effectiveness over time without breaking down or losing adhesion.
Temperature resistance: Thanks to their heat resistance properties, they can withstand high temperatures commonly encountered during plumbing work.
Lubrication: With reduced friction due to their low surface energy characteristics, these tapes facilitate smoother threading processes when connecting pipes together.
Chemical resistance: PTFE helps protect against corrosion from exposure to various substances often found within residential plumbing systems like tap water or cleaning agents.
In spite of these benefits offered by PTFE used in plumber's tape, there are growing concerns about the potential for PFAS to leach into the drinking water, or otherwise contaminate the water running through the pipes.
But does the mere presence of PFAS mean it is an actual concern or threat? This question has surprisingly gone largely unstudied and unanswered.
Key Takeaway: PFAS in plumber's tape offer several benefits such as durability, temperature resistance and chemical protection. However, their use may lead to the contamination of drinking water, but more studies are needed.
Assessing the Safety of PFAS in Plumber's Tape
Potential risks of PFAS leaching into drinking water. There are concerns that the PTFE found in plumber’s tape might leach out through contact with water.
The primary concern is that these toxic chemicals may then get into the drinking water supply. However, you will be hard-pressed to find focused research to answer this question conclusively.
In our opinion, this is the problem. Consumers deserve to understand any known or present risks.
Incomplete Evidence of Plumber’s Tape Impact on Tap Water Quality Despite Concerns:
Limited research. To date, there has been limited research specifically focused on the potential for PFAS in plumber's tape to contaminate drinking water systems. However, studies investigating other sources of contamination provide some insight into how these chemicals might behave when used in plumbing applications. Some states, such as Maine, are beginning to take a closer look by isolating this product in study.
Mobility. Research suggests that certain types of PFAS are highly mobile within aquatic environments. This means that if these chemicals were able to leach from plumber's tape, they could potentially travel through the water supply system and contaminate tap water. This is why more investigation is needed.
Leaching potential. While some studies have found that PFAS can leach from High-Density Polyethylene (HDPE) containers, it is still unclear whether similar levels of contamination would occur with plumber's tape. Further research is needed to determine the extent to which PFAS may be released into drinking water systems when used in plumbing applications.
When asked in a roundtable discussion if there was anything to be gained by removing Teflon taped (plumbing) fittings, the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (MassDEP) made this statement on March 9, 2021, “...MassDEP has not heard a convincing argument that this type of application of Teflon tape is contributing significant amounts of PFAS.”
While a lack of “convincing arguments” may be due to a lack of proper research and evidence, we can only work with the available information or lack thereof and call for more.
Until more research is done regarding PFAS in plumber’s tape, it will remain unclear whether using plumber's tape containing PFAS is contributing to PFAS in drinking water.
Assessing the safety of PFAS in plumber's tape requires further investigation and analysis to determine if there are any potential risks associated with its use.
We should be proactive with this issue, and continue looking for alternative options to the use of Teflon tape.
Special Note: At this time it is extremely difficult to state with certainty on any given brand/type of tape the presence of PFAS. Some alternatives to tape such as pipe dope and pipe joint liquids do exist that do not contain known PFAS. These might be less convenient but may provide peace of mind while the jury is still out on the safety of plumber’s tape.
Mitigating Risk from PFAS in Plumber's Tape
While the risks associated with using plumber's tape are unclear, the following strategies can help minimize potential hazards:
- Choose alternative materials. Consider using non-PFAS alternatives for plumber's tape, such as silicone-based or butyl rubber tapes. You can also use pipe dope or a liquid sealant. These options may provide similar sealing performance without potentially introducing polyfluoroalkyl substances into your tap water.
- Maintain proper installation practices. Ensuring that the plumber’s tape is applied correctly can minimize the risk of leaching. Follow manufacturer guidelines for application. It should never be in any direct contact with water if applied properly.
- Routinely inspect plumbing connections. Regularly check threaded joints and seals for signs of wear or leakage, replacing any damaged components as needed. This proactive approach helps maintain a safe drinking water supply by preventing contamination from worn-out materials.
- Prioritize filtration systems. Installing a high-quality water filter system at home can help remove contaminants like PFAS before they reach your faucet. Look for filters certified by NSF International specifically designed to address these toxic chemicals (NSF P473 standard).
- Stay informed. Keep up-to-date with the latest research and regulatory developments surrounding PFAS contamination in drinking water. Making informed decisions to protect your family from PFAS exposure is essential in preserving our safe drinking water.
Taking action to minimize the potential risks associated with PFAS in plumber's tape is one step towards ensuring that our tap water remains safe for consumption.
By choosing alternative materials, following proper installation practices and staying informed about emerging threats to our drinking water supply, we can work together as environmental industry professionals to safeguard public health against the dangers posed by toxic “forever chemicals.”
Final Thoughts on PFAS in Teflon Tape
Without further research, it’s impossible to know how much PFAS, if any, is coming from plumber’s tape. There are also many other sources that contribute to PFAS in our drinking water.
“It’s possible the tape is contributing to contamination in drinking water, but I would think it’s surely not going to be just that,” according to Jean MacRae, an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Maine.
But we can start to lessen the potential danger of PFAS by understanding how these chemicals interact with plumbing materials and taking preventive measures such as using alternative products and practicing proper installation techniques.
With further research and awareness, we can and should reduce the amount of PFAS entering our drinking water to the best of our abilities. This should be done not only for our own welfare but also for the planet.
About the Author
Bruce Grabowski is a staff writer at plumbingnav.com, a leading national online resource covering plumbing-related repairs, products, and plumbing FAQ’s.