EPA cracks down on 'forever chemicals' in tap water: What PFAS are, where they are, and why they're harmful
- PFAS, or "forever chemicals," are widespread, hazardous to human health, and don't break down.
- The US Environmental Protection Agency is taking the first steps toward federal regulation of PFAS.
PFAS, or "forever chemicals," are an increasingly notorious and widespread contaminant, and the federal government is about to take a giant step toward regulating them.
The US Environmental Protection Agency just released a proposal for enforceable standards for six PFAS compounds in drinking water. The agency aims to finalize the proposal by the end of the year.
That would set a federal maximum on the amount of those PFAS allowed in drinking water, putting the PFAS class of chemicals in the ranks of regulated contaminants, alongside well-known toxic substances like lead, arsenic, and nitrate.
PFAS are a hazard to human health, and you're likely exposed to them every day. Still, companies, governments, and you yourself can take action to protect your health. Here's what you need to know.
What are PFAS, aka forever chemicals?
The abbreviation PFAS stands for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances. This class of chemicals was invented in the 1930s and quickly became ubiquitous.
Since PFAS are resistant to heat, water, and grease, companies use them in many everyday products like 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 those two substances at 4 nanograms per liter of drinking water. It also proposes a "hazard index" to set a limit on the combined quantity of four other PFAS in drinking water: PFNA, GenX, PFBS, and PFHxS.
PFOA and PFOS have been phased out of most US production since the early 2000s, but other PFAS are still commonly manufactured.
PFAS are nicknamed "forever chemicals" because most of them don't break down. Wherever they end up — in the environment, or in our bodies — they stay.
Where are PFAS? How am I exposed to forever chemicals?
PFAS have been found in food, food packaging, bottled water, makeup, menstrual products, toilet paper, artificial turf, and dental floss — to name a few examples. The chemicals are also typically a key ingredient in firefighting foams and water-repellent clothing like rain jackets.
They're not limited to your things, though. During the production of PFAS, and during the use of products containing them, the chemicals get into the air, soil, and water. Rainwater and soil across the globe likely contain unsafe levels of PFAS.
"One of the number one 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.
Because of their widespread use, and because they don't break down, PFAS are in the blood of humans and animals all over the planet. They're probably even in the dust in your home.
Communities across the US have especially high PFAS contamination in their drinking water, often due to a nearby industrial or military facility. Contaminated communities raised some of the earliest alarm 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 weights, asthma, allergies, and reduced vaccine response in children.
In animal studies (which are not always representative of human-health impacts), PFAS have caused newborn deaths, low birth weight, birth defects, and delayed development.
"That's just the tip of the iceberg. This is only 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 show it."
Exposure to PFAS doesn't guarantee that you or your child will develop one of these conditions. But even at low levels, these substances can increase the risk that some people eventually will.
The potential effects are so varied because PFAS themselves are so varied — there are thousands of these substances, after all.
"You see all these strange things depending on which PFAS you're talking about and which organ system, but none of it's good," Elsie Sunderland, who leads environmental contaminants research at Harvard, told Insider.
What can I do to protect myself from PFAS?
Some strategies that could reduce your day-to-day exposure to PFAS include frequently dusting and vacuuming your home, opening windows regularly, not overheating your pans, and filtering your tapwater with devices that use reverse osmosis or granular activated carbon (aka charcoal).
You can also cut out products that are PFAS-heavy, by cooking and eating at home to avoid grease-resistant packaging, ditching Teflon pans from before the 2000s, and avoiding stain-resistant 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, breastfeeding, or expecting to become pregnant might have more reason to cut down on PFAS, because it could have a heightened effect on their child.
If your drinking water only has low levels of PFAS in it, maybe your most strategic approach would be to reexamine the cosmetics you use, or your food packaging or carpeting. Do they contain PFAS?
"You can find things that don't have PFAS, and then that in turn helps those companies that innovated," Sunderland said.
But vetting all the products you use is "almost Mission Impossible," according to Ian Cousins, an environmental chemist who studies PFAS at the University of Stockholm. It may not be worth it to worry about low-level exposure.
"Rather than being worried, I would say we should be really angry about what's happened," he previously told Insider.
How can we solve this problem?
Many experts have called for a blanket ban on the production of PFAS. At the very least, companies could stop putting PFAS in so many products.
"You can't just regulate in drinking water, without addressing the other side," Sunderland said, adding that you have to "turn off the source."
She also said it would help for the US government to regulate PFAS as an entire class of chemicals, rather than piecemeal regulations on particular PFAS like PFOA or PFOS, as many state governments have done.
In the meantime, more transparency from companies about what they're putting in their products would help consumers choose less toxic options. Pressure for more transparency can come from grassroots campaigns, Sunderland said, or from the government, or companies could do it voluntarily.
Cleaning up highly contaminated sites is also key, both for protecting locals' health and for reducing the amount of PFAS pollution across the planet.
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