The dangerous “forever chemicals” called PFAS are in the bloodstream of most Americans and they don’t break down.
A simple graph shows how long PFAS last in human bodies, compared to substances like caffeine or lead.
The US EPA has just taken a first step towards removing these harmful chemicals from everyday life.
The dangerous “forever chemicals” have probably been coursing through your veins for years.
Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are a class of thousands of man-made chemicals, which are likely to be found in food, water, clothing, and furniture. They are linked to multiple cancers, thyroid disease, liver damage, decreased fertility, asthma, allergies and reduced vaccine response in children.
That’s why the United States Environmental Protection Agency proposed a new rule on Tuesday to strictly limit six PFAS in drinking water. It is the first time the agency has moved to regulate chemicals.
Scientists suspect that PFAS are in every American’s bloodstream and stay there. This is how these substances earned the nickname “forever chemicals”. They don’t break.
“Once they enter your body, they stay for a long, long time,” Carmen Messerlian, an environmental epidemiologist who studies PFAS at Harvard’s TH Chan School of Public Health, told Insider.
How long they hang around is simple to calculate using a chemical rule, called a “half-life.”
In humans, half-life is the amount of time it takes for your body to excrete half the amount of a substance from your blood, either by urinating it or absorbing it into other tissues.
A substance’s half-life can vary widely between individual people, but studies have calculated averages. That research tells us how long PFAS can stay in our blood, compared to toxic heavy metals or everyday substances like caffeine.
This means that if you eliminate PFAS completely from your life—a feat scientists say is virtually impossible—in four years, seven years, or maybe even 10 years, your body will have excreted only half of the chemicals.
That’s not to say that eliminating PFAS from our bodies is a lost cause.
After a lot of bad press around two of the most popular PFASs — perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonic acid (PFOS) — US manufacturers phased them out of production in the 2000s.
You can see the results in American’s blood. From 1999-2000 to 2017-2018, blood levels of PFOA decreased by 70 percent and PFOS levels decreased even more, by 85 percent, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“This is an indication that when something is done, and when we stop using chemicals, we stop releasing them into the environment, concentrations [in our bodies] go down,” David Andrews, a senior scientist studying PFAS at watchdog organization Environmental Working Group, told Insider.
There are still thousands of other PFASs widely manufactured and used in products in the United States and around the globe.
Everything from dental floss and menstrual products to food packaging and furniture is spreading PFAS throughout the environment and into our bodies, from the day the chemical is first made, to as long as it is use the product and even after throwing it away.
Regulation of six of these chemicals in US drinking water is only the beginning of solving the problem.
“We’re really only covering the tip of the iceberg,” Messerlian said.
“We need these chemicals to stop circulating in our environments preventing them from being in the food production line and the product production line,” he added.
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