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Taking a Look at Widely Used “Forever Chemicals”

What do fire-extinguishing foam, dental floss, take-out containers, nonstick cookware and upholstery have in common? They’re all manufactured using a group of persistent, man-made chemicals called per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). In fact, you’ve probably been exposed to PFAS regularly for most of your life. But recent studies have shown these chemicals can have significant adverse health impacts and experts are calling on the U.S. government to more strictly regulate them.

PFAS refers to a class of more than 4,000 chemicals used to make items resistant to moisture, heat, oil and stains. They’re widely used in many manufactured goods, including microwave popcorn bags, pizza boxes, fabrics, cosmetics and paints. We’re exposed to these substances in a variety of ways: they can leach into the food we eat, leach into soil, run off into our water supply and be absorbed through topical products on our skin. A Harvard study found that at least six million Americans drink PFAS-contaminated water daily. Additionally, when these products are incinerated, PFAS are released into the air we breathe.

PFAS have been nicknamed “forever chemicals” since they don’t break down naturally. Not only do they persist in our environment, but they also accumulate in the tissues of fish, other wildlife we consume and in our bodies. Most people have a measurable amount of PFAS in their blood. These substances have been used since the 1940s and we are exposed to them every day. However, recent reports linking high levels of PFAS exposure to cancer, hormone imbalances, birth defects, thyroid disease, immune system defects and liver damage are making scientists and public officials rethink what is considered “safe” exposure.

“For far too long, communities across the United States have been suffering from exposure to PFAS pollution,” said Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Michael S. Regan. “As the science has continued to develop, we know now more than ever about how PFAS build up in our bodies over time and how they can cause adverse health effects.”

While virtually everyone is exposed to PFAS in some way, certain communities are more at-risk than others, such as those living next to factories that use PFAS. For example, in 2016, residents of Hoosick Falls village in New York began to question why their small community had such high rates of cancer. A resident suspected industrial pollution could be to blame and started testing water around the community for chemicals. He discovered long-standing perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) pollution in the town’s water supply, with levels at more than seven times the EPA’s guideline. Last year, three of the companies blamed for polluting the town’s water supply agreed to pay $65.25 million to Hoosick Falls to compensate and fund long-term medical monitoring for affected residents.

Workers in certain occupations can also be exposed to PFAS at higher levels than the general public, such as by working with industrial materials with high concentrations of PFAS or breathing in contaminated air at the workplace. According to NIOSH, the highest-risk occupations for PFAS exposure are firefighters and chemical manufacturing workers. Construction workers may also be at heightened risk since a wide variety of building materials (various coatings, grout, concrete sealers, adhesives and electrical wiring) contain PFAS.

What Is Being Done About PFAS?

There are thousands of PFAS with potentially varying effects and levels of toxicity, but historically, studies and actions have only focused on a limited number of these compounds. In 2006, for example, the EPA and eight large U.S. manufacturers agreed to eliminate certain PFAS (PFOA and perfluorooctane sulfonic acid [PFOS]) from emissions and products by the end of 2015. These chemicals are no longer used in the U.S. and levels of PFOA and PFOS in blood have since decreased by more than 80 percent.

In 2016, the Obama administration set a health advisory limit of 70 parts per trillion for certain PFAS in drinking water, but no federal regulation currently exists. Instead, this advisory serves as a guideline to help inform policies on the local level. For example, New York has since adopted its own regulations on PFAS in water supplies and other states like New Jersey, Vermont and California have followed suit.

Additionally, last October the Biden administration announced a plan to take more aggressive action against a group of PFAS in the coming years. The EPA’s agenda includes developing a national PFAS testing strategy, passing an enforceable PFAS limit in drinking water, releasing updated guidance on exposure limits and how to dispose of PFAS and finding ways to effectively remediate PFAS contamination in our environment. Advocates are urging states to continue pursuing their own drinking water limits and pushing corporations to stop using the chemicals in their products altogether. So far, companies like Starbucks, Burger King and Chick-Fil-A have pledged to eliminate PFAS from their packaging.

What Can You Do?

With so many pathways to exposure and the extreme prevalence of PFAS, it’s virtually impossible to completely eliminate your exposure as an individual. Notable improvements can be made with enforceable regulations and the EPA’s new plan is a step in the right direction. In the meantime, you can try limiting your exposure in the following ways:

  1. Water: If you suspect your water is contaminated with PFAS, consider using a water filter. Reverse osmosis and certain activated carbon filters are most effective at removing the chemicals.
  2. Food: Food can be contaminated with PFAS through packaging, the cookware used to prepare it and even the air, water and soil used to grow it. Opting for cast iron, ceramic or stainless steel instead of nonstick cookware, avoiding takeout containers or any grease-resistant packaging and eating at home more often can all help lessen your exposure to PFAS.
  3. At home: The simplest way to reduce exposure to PFAS at home is to avoid buying water-or stain-repellent furniture, rugs or bedding. Check manufacturers’ websites and labels to see if they’ve eliminated PFAS from their products.
  4. At work: The most effective way to prevent exposure is to prevent the dispersion of dust. Workers can be exposed through inhalation, their skin, eyes and ingestion. Inhalation can be prevented by local exhaust systems and the use of respirators. Skin exposure can be prevented by wearing protective gloves. Eye exposure can be prevented with safety goggles or eye protection in combination with breathing protection. In order to avoid ingesting PFAS, do not eat, drink or smoke while working around these chemicals.

[Hannah Sabitoni]

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