The Dangers of Forever Chemicals
If you’ve ever used non-stick cookware, food packaging, water resistant clothing, or stain-resistant carpeting, there’s a good chance that you have been exposed to dangerous, potentially deadly chemicals. These chemicals are called Per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) and have been used in various industry products. Because of their durability, PFAS are often called “Forever Chemicals” and are used in industries such as aerospace, automotive, construction, electronics, and military.[i] Although durability is a desired trait for many manufacturers, the durable quality PFAs possesses also causes them to break down very slowly and remain in the environment for a long period of time.
PFAS are present in drinking water, food, food packaging, household products and dust, personal care products, fire extinguishing foam, and biosolids. The widespread prevalence of PFAS in these places has led to increased ingestion of this chemical. According to a study by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), PFAS were found in the blood of 97% of Americans. [ii] The extensive presence of PFAS in products humans frequently use poses the question of how exposure to “Forever Chemicals” will affect our long-term health, and whether or not regulations should be tightened to limit our exposure to these dangerous chemicals.
The Dangers of PFAS
Studies conducted on the effects of PFAS have shown that PFAS can cause health problems such as decreased fertility and increased high blood pressure in pregnant women, developmental effects or delays in children, increased risk of cancers (prostate, kidney, and testicular), reduced ability of the body’s immune system to fight infections, increased cholesterol levels, and interference with the body’s natural hormones.[iii] The effects of PFAS are also thought by the EPA to be more harmful in children. Because they are still developing, they may be more sensitive to its effects, and they consume more resources and are less consciously aware of their consumption, so they may also be more exposed than adults.
Due to the known risk of PFAS, the EPA has recently updated its health advisory regarding PFAS, and has issued recommendations on how to lower PFAS levels. It has also issued a $1 billion grant from funding provided in President Biden’s Bipartisian Infrastructure law, in order to “help communities that are on the frontlines of PFAS contamination.”[iv] This grant is in addition to another $3.4 billion through the Drinking Water State Revolving Funds and a $3.2 billion one through the Clean Water State Revolving Funds being used to address PFAS in water. [v]
In their health advisory, the EPA has also lowered the levels of PFAs that can be found in water. According to the Washington Post, the new advisories are “3,000 to 17,000 times lower than those released by the Obama Administration in 2016.”[vi] The updated Health Advisory for PFOA is 0.004 ppt and the updated Health Advisory for PFOS is 0.02ppt. The EPA has also included updated numbers for PFBS and GenX Chemicals, which are often used as substitutes for PFAs and have been proven to also be harmful to humans when ingested. The updated Health Advisory for PFBS is 2,000 ppt and the updated Health Advisory for GenX chemicals is 10 ppt.[vii]
This staggering drop in the acceptable levels of PFAS from 2016 suggests that the dangers of PFAS are more pressing than originally believed. However, some people are claiming that there are some flaws in the EPA’s Health Advisory and plans to help decrease the amount of PFAS in water levels. For instance, some companies are claiming that the advisory levels for PFOA and PFOS are so low they will be difficult to detect with current technology. Other people have criticized the EPA for only putting out regulations for 2 types of PFAS, when there are currently thousands of types of PFAS worldwide.[viii] The EPA has responded to these criticisms, claiming that they will propose a PFAS National Drinking Water Regulation in fall 2022. They have also claimed that they are “evaluating additional PFAS beyond PFOA and PFOS and considering actions to address groups of PFAS.” [ix]
Given all of this information, it is evident that the true danger of PFAS has been underexaggerated in the public eye. The changes the EPA made to their Health Advisory is one insight into how severe the effects of these chemicals are and show that it’s just about time we started taking them seriously.
[i] “Perfluoroalkyl and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS),” National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, accessed June 20, 2022, https://www.niehs.nih.gov/health/topics/agents/pfc/index.cfm.
[ii] “Perfluoroalkyl and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS).”
[iii] OA US EPA, “Our Current Understanding of the Human Health and Environmental Risks of PFAS,” Overviews and Factsheets, October 14, 2021, https://www.epa.gov/pfas/our-current-understanding-human-health-and-environmental-risks-pfas.
[iv] OA US EPA, “EPA Announces New Drinking Water Health Advisories for PFAS Chemicals, $1 Billion in Bipartisan Infrastructure Law Funding to Strengthen Health Protections,” News Release, June 15, 2022, https://www.epa.gov/newsreleases/epa-announces-new-drinking-water-health-advisories-pfas-chemicals-1-billion-bipartisan.
[v] US EPA.
[vi] “EPA Warns Toxic ‘Forever Chemicals’ More Dangerous than Once Thought,” Washington Post, accessed June 20, 2022, https://www.washingtonpost.com/climate-environment/2022/06/15/epa-pfas-forever-chemicals/.
[vii] EPA, “Drinking Water Health Advisories for PFAS Fact Sheet for Communities,” n.d., https://www.epa.gov/system/files/documents/2022-06/drinking-water-ha-pfas-factsheet-communities.pdf.
[viii] US EPA, “EPA Announces New Drinking Water Health Advisories for PFAS Chemicals, $1 Billion in Bipartisan Infrastructure Law Funding to Strengthen Health Protections.”
[ix] US EPA.
EPA. “Drinking Water Health Advisories for PFAS Fact Sheet for Communities,” n.d. https://www.epa.gov/system/files/documents/2022-06/drinking-water-ha-pfas-factsheet-communities.pdf.
Washington Post. “EPA Warns Toxic ‘Forever Chemicals’ More Dangerous than Once Thought.” Accessed June 20, 2022. https://www.washingtonpost.com/climate-environment/2022/06/15/epa-pfas-forever-chemicals/.
National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. “Perfluoroalkyl and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS).” Accessed June 20, 2022. https://www.niehs.nih.gov/health/topics/agents/pfc/index.cfm.
US EPA, OA. “EPA Announces New Drinking Water Health Advisories for PFAS Chemicals, $1 Billion in Bipartisan Infrastructure Law Funding to Strengthen Health Protections.” News Release, June 15, 2022. https://www.epa.gov/newsreleases/epa-announces-new-drinking-water-health-advisories-pfas-chemicals-1-billion-bipartisan.
———. “Our Current Understanding of the Human Health and Environmental Risks of PFAS.” Overviews and Factsheets, October 14, 2021. https://www.epa.gov/pfas/our-current-understanding-human-health-and-environmental-risks-pfas.