What PFAS are, where they are found and why they are harmful

The US Environmental Protection Agency regulates PFAS, or “Forever Chemicals,” in drinking water for the first time.Catherine Falls Advertisement/Getty Images

  • PFAS or “Forever Chemicals” are widespread, harmful to health and do not degrade.

  • The US Environmental Protection Agency is taking the first steps toward federal regulation of PFAS.

  • Here’s what you should know about PFAS, how they harm your health, how you are exposed to them and what to do.

PFAS, or “Forever Chemicals,” are an increasingly notorious and widespread contaminant, and the federal government is about to take a big step toward regulating them.

The US Environmental Protection Agency has 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.

This would set a federal maximum for the amount of PFAS allowed in drinking water, bringing the PFAS chemical class into the ranks of regulated contaminants alongside known toxic substances such as lead, arsenic and nitrate.

people, drinking water, fountain, faucet

People drink water from a six-spigot fountain in New York City.Mario Tama/Getty Images

PFAS are a human health hazard and you are likely to be exposed to them every day. Still, companies, governments and you can take steps to protect your health. Here’s what you need to know.

What are PFAS, also known as forever chemicals?

The abbreviation PFAS stands for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances. This class of chemicals was invented in the 1930’s and quickly became ubiquitous.

Because PFAS are heat, water and grease resistant, companies use them in many everyday products such as food packaging, clothing and cosmetics.

Today man has created thousands of substances of 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 “hazard index” to set a limit on the combined amount of four other PFAS in drinking water: PFNA, GenX, PFBS and PFHxS.

PFOA and PFOS have been phased out in most US manufacturing since the early 2000s, however other PFAS are still commonly manufactured.

PFAS are nicknamed “Forever Chemicals” because most of them do not degrade. Wherever they end up – in the environment or in our bodies – they stay.

Where are PFAS? How am I forever exposed to chemicals?

Toddler drinks mineral water

A child drinks bottled water in Reynosa, Mexico.Daniel Becerrill/Reuters

PFAS have been found in food, food packaging, bottled water, make-up, menstrual products, toilet paper, artificial turf and dental floss – just to name a few. The chemicals are also an important ingredient in firefighting foams and water-repellent clothing such as rain jackets.

However, you are not limited to your belongings. During the manufacture of PFAS and the use of products containing them, the chemicals are released into the air, soil and water. Rainwater and soils around the world are likely to contain dangerous levels of PFAS.

“One of the number one sources of exposure is drinking water, but so is 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 are not broken down, PFAS are present in the blood of humans and animals around the world. You’re probably even in the dust in your house.

Communities in the US have particularly high levels of PFAS contamination in their drinking water, often due to a nearby industrial or military facility. Contaminated communities raised some of the earliest alarms about PFAS, suing manufacturers in states like Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio and West Virginia.

How do PFAS affect your health?

Peer-reviewed studies have linked PFAS to several types of cancer, high cholesterol, thyroid disease, liver damage, reduced fertility, low birth weight, asthma, allergies and reduced immunization responses in children.

In animal studies (which are not always representative of human health effects), PFAS have caused neonatal deaths, low birth weight, birth defects and delayed development.

pfas epa forever chemical

Lauren Woehr presents a cup of bottled water to her 16-month-old daughter Caroline, who is being held by her husband Dan McDowell, at their home in Horsham, Pennsylvania, a community affected by PFAS pollution.AP Photo/Matt Rourke

“That’s just the tip of the iceberg. That’s just basically what we’ve been able to study,” added Messerlian. “There’s probably a lot more impact. We just haven’t been able to do the science to show it.”

Exposure to PFAS does not guarantee that you or your child will develop any of these conditions. But even in small amounts, these substances can increase the risk that some people will eventually do it.

pfas epa contaminated drinking water

US Environmental Protection Agency officials listen to public comments from members during a meeting of PFAS community stakeholders in Horsham, Pennsylvania.AP Photo/Matt Rourke

The possible effects are so diverse because PFAS themselves are so diverse – after all, there are thousands of these substances.

“You see all these weird things depending on what PFAS you’re talking about and what organ system you’re talking about, but none of that is good,” Elsie Sunderland, who leads Harvard research on environmental contaminants, told Insider.

What can I do to protect myself from PFAS?

Some strategies that could reduce your daily exposure to PFAS include vacuuming and vacuuming your home frequently, opening windows regularly, overheating your pans, and filtering your tap water with devices that use reverse osmosis or granular activated carbon (aka charcoal).

Man opens sliding glass door window in living room

A property manager opens the window of an empty house in the city of Kamakura near Tokyo.Thomas Peter/Reuters

You can also eliminate PFAS-rich products by cooking and eating at home to avoid greaseproof packaging, ditching pre-2000s Teflon pans, 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, breastfeeding, or expecting to become pregnant may have more reasons to reduce PFAS because it may have an increased effect on their child.

If your drinking water is low in PFAS, perhaps your most strategic approach would be to re-examine the cosmetics you use, or your food packaging or carpets. Do they contain PFAS?

Woman applying eyeliner to another woman's eye

A woman puts her friend’s makeup on in Nashville, Tennessee.Harrison McClary/Reuters

“You can find things that don’t contain PFAS, and that in turn helps the companies that are innovating,” Sunderland said.

But verifying all the products you use is “nearly impossible,” according to Ian Cousins, an environmental chemist who studies PFAS at Stockholm University. Low exposure might not be worth worrying about.

“Rather than worry, I would say that we should be really angry about what 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 using 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 “shut off the source”.

She also said it would help the US government regulate PFAS as an entire class of chemicals, rather than piecemeal regulations for specific PFAS such as PFOA or PFOS, as many state governments have done.

Meanwhile, more transparency from companies about what they put in their products would help consumers choose less toxic options. Pressure for more transparency can come from grassroots campaigns, Sunderland said, or from government, or companies can do so voluntarily.

Cleaning up heavily contaminated sites is also vital, both to protect the health of local people and to reduce the amount of PFAS pollution around the world.

Read the original article on Business Insider

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