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Last week, the Environmental Protection Agency [EPA] released a new warning that even small amounts of certain PFAS chemicals found in drinking water can present risks.
Scientists find PFAS everywhere. When products like this end up in landfills, these pollutants seep into our soil, air, and drinking water. This is how PFAS end up in food, wildlife, and even our bloodstream.
So how do we navigate a world filled with harmful chemicals?
Arlene Blum is a biophysical chemist and executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute, and she spends much of her time educating the public about PFAS, including members of Congress.
She tells us what PFAS are, why they are a problem and what can be done about them.
What are PFAS?
Short for “per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances”, PFAS are a class of thousands of man-made chemicals that have been around since the 1940s.
And as the nickname suggests, “forever chemicals” have been around for a long time. They do not decompose, which has led to widespread contamination.
Manufacturers use PFAS to make products resistant to oil, heat, stains or water. They’re found in everything from cosmetics to outdoor gear, nonstick pans, food wrappers and countless others, according to the CDC.
Blum says PFAS are his “favorites” because they are the best and the worst.
“These are the best in that they’re very helpful in keeping things dry and greasy,” she said. “But they’re the worst because… they never break down, and every one that’s been studied has been shown to be harmful.”
In 2016, the EPA said PFAS were not a threat at low levels: 70 parts per trillion. The agency has just amended this advisory, lowering the “safe” threshold to practically zero. PFAS still pose risks at levels so low they go undetected, the EPA said.
What do PFAS do to your health?
In short, nothing good.
Scientists are still learning about the effects of PFAS on humans, but studies show that these chemicals can damage different body systems.
The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry says exposure to PFAS can lead to a higher risk of kidney or testicular cancer, increased cholesterol levels, and damage to the liver and immune system.
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In addition, a study published in the journal Hypertension found that PFAS can cause high blood pressure in middle-aged women.
Blum says that while everyone probably has PFAS in their body, that doesn’t mean everyone will develop these conditions. These are potential side effects that have been found as a result of exposure to these pollutants.
What is being done about it?
US government officials have taken a number of steps to address PFAS pollution at the state and federal level.
Along with the recent drinking water advisory, the EPA announced $1 billion in infrastructure grant funding to address pollution from PFAS and other chemical contaminants. Their goal is to improve health protections with things like water testing.
In October 2021, the White House announced initiatives to protect communities and the environment from PFAS. The Biden administration has listed steps for eight government agencies, including the Food and Drug Administration, to address PFAS pollution.
Several officials testified before a Senate committee in 2021 about the actions taken by the Department of Defense to deal with these chemicals, particularly at defense sites across the country. According to the DOD, it has invested more than $1.5 billion in PFAS research and cleanup efforts and is trying to help those on the front lines who have been hardest hit — like blood tests for firefighters. who are exposed to PFAS in the fire fighting foam.
Blum says government regulations would force companies to take action, but the responsibility also lies with the private sector to stop using PFAS in their products.
“Manufacturers can act faster than the government,” she said. “But the possibility of government regulation definitely moves them forward.”
What can I do?
Well, it’s complicated.
Blum stressed that this burden should not fall on the consumer and that PFAS can be difficult to avoid altogether. She says it’s really up to the manufacturers and the government to stop – or ban – the use of these chemicals.
Many companies have pledged to stop using these compounds in all products, including some brands of clothing, fast food, and outdoor sports. The Green Science Policy Institute has compiled a list of PFAS-free product brands.
According to Blum, if you already own something that contains PFAS, it’s safe to use as long as you use it correctly (eg, don’t overheat your nonstick pans). She just asks that you look for another alternative when it’s time to replace them.
“You can wear your jacket, you can use your pot, but don’t buy another one [that was manufactured with PFAS],” she says.