Need to Know: Forever Chemicals

A researcher in a protective suit takes water for analysis from a polluted river. © kosmos111 via Adobe Stock.
A researcher in a protective suit takes water for analysis from a polluted river. © kosmos111 via Adobe Stock.

Forever chemicals, also known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), are a group of man-made chemicals that have been used in a wide range of industrial and consumer products for decades. They’ve been making headlines in recent years due to their widespread use and persistence in the environment. Their unique properties, including their ability to repel oil and water, make them valuable in a wide range of manufacturing processes. These chemicals are called “forever” because they do not break down in the environment and can remain in the soil, water, and air for thousands of years.

These man-made chemicals have been used in a wide range of products, including non-stick cookware, food packaging, water-resistant clothing, firefighting foam, and many other industrial applications. While their unique properties have made them valuable in manufacturing processes, the downside is that they do not break down in the environment.

Studies have shown that they can accumulate in our organs over time, potentially leading to a wide range of health problems. In fact, a recent study found that PFAS were present in the blood of 99% of Americans tested.

The issue of PFAS contamination is complex and has been under scrutiny by the scientific community for decades. Studies have linked these chemicals to a variety of health problems, including immune system dysfunction, and developmental delays in infants and children. They have also been associated with increased risk of liver, thyroid, and pancreatic cancer.

One of the challenges of addressing the issue of PFAS contamination is that these chemicals are not regulated under the Clean Water Act or any other federal environmental laws, which means that there are currently no restrictions on their use or discharge into the environment.

Historically, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has set health advisory levels for two of the most common PFAS, perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS), at 70 parts per trillion (ppt). However, many scientists and public health advocates argue that these levels are too high and that even very low levels of exposure to PFAS can be harmful. In 2019 and 2022, the EPA announced a plan to regulate PFAS, but the proposed regulations were criticized for being too weak and slow-moving.

In the absence of federal action, some states have taken matters into their own hands. Several states, including Michigan, Minnesota, and New Jersey, have set stricter drinking water standards for PFAS than the EPA’s guidelines. Other states, including Vermont and Washington, have passed laws restricting the use of PFAS in certain products. This is a positive step forward, but more needs to be done to address this issue at a national level.

Less than a week ago (on March 14, 2023), the EPA proposed limiting forever chemicals in drinking water to the lowest levels that tests can detect – about 4 parts per trillion. The final ruling is expected later this year, after a public commenting period. Water providers and utilities will be given time to adjust. If passed, the EPA is planning to release billions of dollars in funds to support reducing the prevalence of forever chemicals in US water supplies.

The issue of PFAS contamination is complex, and there is no easy solution. However, there are steps that individuals can take to reduce their exposure to these chemicals. These include using a water filter that is certified to remove PFAS, avoiding products that contain PFAS, and contacting elected officials to urge them to take action on this issue.

The best way to protect yourself from PFAS is to take a proactive approach. By being aware of these chemicals and making informed choices, you can minimize your exposure and protect your health.

Written by Editorial Team

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