PFAS! The acronym brings up goosebumps on citizenry, regulators, and water quality professionals alike. Though these human-made chemicals have been around for 70 years, they’ve stepped into the emerging toxins spotlight this year, and concern is growing.
Here’s a sampling of news headlines from throughout the U.S. on July 28:
- Pentagon Announces PFAS Task Force to Address Contamination (EWG)
- Farmers Are Losing Everything After “Forever Chemicals” Turn Up In Their Food (BuzzFeed News)
- New York to Get Federal Funds for PFAS Health Study (Lexington Herald Leader)
- Water System Operators Told to Test for PFAS Contamination (Greenwich Time)
- Three Connecticut Rivers to be Tested This Summer for PFAS Chemical Pollution (Hartford Courant)
- “Markedly higher” Levels of 2 PFAS Found in the Blood of NC Residents (WECTV)
- Yakutat Officials Wary of State’s PFAS Double Standard (Alaska Public Media News)
This post will lay out the basics on PFAS; future posts will discuss current efforts by Vermont and other New England states to learn more about PFAS and to reduce human health risks associated with them.
What are PFAS, and why are they nicknamed “the forever chemicals”?
Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances comprise a family of almost 5,000 compounds, being invented and manufactured continuously since 1940. They’re called “forever chemicals” because that’s what they were designed to be – highly durable, resistant to grease, solvents, biodegradation, photodegradation, and heat.
They’re used in hundreds products, notably non-stick cookware, heat-resistant industrial materials (and processes), water- and stain-resistant sprays, carpets, food packaging, dental floss, paints, cleaning products, and firefighting foams.
That means we have lots of opportunities to be exposed to them. During Congressional testimony on July 24, Glenn Evers, a DuPont chemist for 22 years, claimed that 99% of Americans have PFAS in their blood and body cells. And, Evers warned, “these chemicals stay in your blood and don’t leave. . . . there is not a single bacteria, mold, or virus, anything that will ever break this molecule down.” He went on to say, “You can’t kill this beast. You can only control it.”
How are humans exposed?
As the above suggests, we’re exposed from the moment we fry our breakfast eggs on a non-stick pan until we floss our teeth before bedtime. The US EPA lists the following as the most common means or sources of exposure:
- Eating food packaged in PFAS-containing materials or food grown in PFAS-contaminated soil or water
- Eating fish or wild game with high concentrations of PFAS
- Inhaling or having skin contact with commercial household products, including stain- and water-repellent fabrics, nonstick products (e.g., Teflon), polishes, waxes, paints, cleaning products, etc., containing PFAS
- Inhaling or having skin contact in workplaces, such as production facilities or industries using PFAS (e.g., chrome plating, electronics manufacturing or oil recovery)
- Drinking water – whether from a well, a municipal supply, or bottled – that has been contaminated or packaged using materials/equipment containing PFAS
- For babies, drinking breast milk from mothers who have been exposed to PFAS
What are the health dangers?
Definitive answers may not be available, yet. While concern is universal among health authorities, high-confidence clinical literature is hard to find. This is in part due to the fact that, with new PFAS continually being invented, there hasn’t been time to assess their health effects.
PFOA and PFOS have been better studied; in lab animals, according to the US EPA, they have been shown to affect function of reproductive, developmental, endocrine, and immunological systems, and have caused tumors.
Among humans, the most consistent findings are increased cholesterol levels among exposed populations, with more limited findings related to:
- low infant birth weights
- reduced immune response
- changes in liver function
- kidney and testicular cancer (for PFOA), and
- thyroid hormone disruption (for PFOS)
But which of the 5,000 PFAS are most toxic? What degree of health impairment results from what level of exposure, over how long? Is there a safe level? What products, foods, or circumstances cause the greatest uptake by the human body? How can consumers minimize their exposure?
Well, as the ATSDR – Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry – explains, mildly, “Scientists are still learning about the health effects of exposure to mixtures of PFAS.”
Next: PFAS in water and wastewater, and what the EPA and states are doing about it.
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