PFAS, or “forever chemicals”, are widespread, dangerous to human health and do not decompose.
The US Environmental Protection Agency is taking the first steps towards federal regulation of PFAS.
Here’s what you should know about PFAS, how they harm your health, how you’re exposed, and what to do.
PFAS, or “forever chemicals”, are an increasingly well-known and widespread contaminant, and the federal government is about to take a giant step towards regulating them.
The US Environmental Protection Agency just released a proposal for applicable standards for six PFAS compounds in drinking water. The agency aims to finalize the proposal by the end of the year.
This would set a federal maximum on the amount of those PFASs allowed in drinking water, putting the PFAS class of chemicals in the ranks of regulated contaminants, along with well-known toxicants like lead, arsenic and nitrate.
PFAS are a danger to human health and you are likely exposed to them every day. However, companies, governments and you can take action to protect your health. Here’s what you need to know.
What are PFAS, or chemicals forever?
The abbreviation PFAS stands for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances. This class of chemicals was invented in the 1930s and quickly became ubiquitous.
Because PFASs are resistant to heat, water and grease, companies use them in many everyday products such as food packaging, clothing and cosmetics.
Today humans have created thousands of substances in the PFAS class. Two of them have been the focus of most scientific research: perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonic acid (PFOS).
The new EPA proposal would set the threshold for these two substances at 4 nanograms per liter of drinking water. It also proposes a “risk index” to set a limit on the combined amount of four other PFASs in drinking water: PFNA, GenX, PFBS, and PFHxS.
PFOA and PFOS have been phased out of most US manufacturing since the early 2000s, but other PFAS are still commonly produced.
PFASs are nicknamed “forever chemicals” because most of them don’t decompose. Wherever they end up, in the environment or in our bodies, they stay.
Where are the PFAS? How am I exposed to chemicals forever?
PFAS have been found in food, food packaging, bottled water, makeup, menstrual products, toilet paper, artificial grass, and dental floss, just to name a few examples. Chemicals are also typically a key ingredient in fire-fighting foams and water-repellent clothing such as rain jackets.
They aren’t limited to your stuff, though. During the production of PFAS and during the use of products containing them, chemicals enter the air, soil and water. Rainwater and soil around the world likely contain unsafe levels of PFAS.
“One of the main sources of exposure is drinking water, but also our food,” Carmen Messerlian, an environmental epidemiologist who studies PFAS at Harvard’s TH Chan School of Public Health, told Insider.
Due to their widespread use and because they don’t break down, PFAS are in the blood of humans and animals all over the planet. They are probably also in the dust of your house.
Communities across the United States have particularly high PFAS contamination in their drinking water, often from a nearby industrial or military facility. Contaminated communities have raised some of the first alarms about PFAS by suing manufacturers, in states including Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio and West Virginia.
How do PFAS affect your health?
Peer-reviewed studies have linked PFAS to multiple cancers, high cholesterol, thyroid disease, liver damage, decreased fertility, low birth weight, asthma, allergies, and reduced vaccine response in children.
In animal studies (which are not always representative of human health impacts), PFAS have caused neonatal deaths, low birth weight, birth defects, and delayed development.
“This is just the tip of the iceberg. This is just basically what we’ve been able to study,” Messerlian added. “There’s probably a lot more impact. We just haven’t been able to do the science to be able to prove it.”
Exposure to PFAS does not guarantee that you or your child will develop any of these conditions. But even at low levels, these substances can increase the risk that some people will eventually.
The potential effects are so varied because PFAS themselves are so varied—there are, after all, thousands of these substances.
“You see all these weird things depending on which PFAS you’re talking about and which organ system, but none of it is good,” Elsie Sunderland, who leads research on environmental contaminants at Harvard, told Insider.
What can I do to protect myself from PFAS?
Some strategies that could reduce your daily exposure to PFAS include dusting and vacuuming your home frequently, opening windows regularly, not overheating cookware, and filtering tap water with devices that use reverse osmosis or granular activated carbon. (also known as charcoal).
You can also eliminate products that are heavy in PFAS, by cooking and eating at home to avoid grease-proof packaging, ditching pre-2000s Teflon cookware, and avoiding stain- or water-resistant carpets and fabrics.
“You also have to think about the level of exposure and who you are,” Sunderland said.
For example, someone who is pregnant, nursing, or expecting to become pregnant may have more reasons to reduce PFAS, because it may have a greater effect on their baby.
If your drinking water contains only low levels of PFAS, perhaps your most strategic approach would be to re-examine the cosmetics you use, or food packaging or carpeting. Do they contain PFAS?
“You can find things that don’t have PFAS, and that in turn helps those companies that have been innovating,” Sunderland said.
But checking all the products you use is “almost mission impossible,” according to Ian Cousins, an environmental chemist studying PFAS at Stockholm University. It may not be worth worrying about low-level exposure.
“Rather than being concerned, I would say we should be really upset about what happened,” he previously told Insider.
how can we solve this problem?
Many experts have called for an outright ban on the production of PFAS. At the very least, companies could stop putting PFAS in so many products.
“You can’t just regulate the drinking water, without addressing the other side,” Sunderland said, adding that you have to “turn off the source.”
He also said it would help the US government regulate PFASs as an entire class of chemicals, rather than piecemeal regulations on particular PFASs such as PFOA or PFOS, as many state governments have done.
Meanwhile, more transparency from companies about what they’re putting into their products would help consumers choose less toxic options. Pressure for greater transparency may come from grassroots campaigns, Sunderland said, or from the government, or companies may do so voluntarily.
Cleaning up highly contaminated sites is also critical, both to protect the health of the premises and to reduce the amount of PFAS pollution around the planet.
Read the original article on Business Insider