Thing to Know: 'Forever Chemicals'

Published on: Oct 20, 2021fb-roundtwitter-roundemail-round
Forever chemicals, PFASGetty Images

In October, the EPA announced an “aggressive” plan to deal with toxic “forever chemicals” (more formally known as PFAS). They’re polluting drinking water, soil, and food across the US — and the world. If you think this is a case for Erin Brokovich — she’s been talking about it. But these chemicals aren’t anything new.

So, what are “forever chemicals?”

They are PFAS, which stands for polyfluoroalkyl and perfluoroalkyl substances (say that 10 times fast). They’ve been around since the 1950s. And there isn’t just one, there are thousands of man-made “forever chemicals” found in many commonly used products. Like: some cosmetics, non-stick cookware, cell phones, furniture, fire-fighting foams, dental floss, food packaging, clothing, the list goes on. And they’re frequently referred to as “forever chemicals” because they don’t break down naturally in the environment.

Meaning: They can – and have – leaked into US soil, drinking water, and air. A move that is particularly bad for us humans.

How do PFAS affect your health?

The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry says people (and animals) can be exposed via:

  • Drinking municipal or private well water.

  • Eating fish caught from water contaminated by PFAS

  • Accidentally swallowing contaminated soil or dust

  • Eating food that was packaged in material that contains PFAS (“forever chemicals” are used in items like pizza boxes and coated paper used to package fast foods)

  • Exposure through cosmetic use is also possible. (Think: Humans can absorb these “forever chemicals” through products used near their eyes and mouth.)

Since PFAS are used in a variety of products and are persistent in our environments, many of these chemicals are found in the blood of animals and people all over the world (though typically at low levels). Nearly all Americans, including newborn babies, have PFAS in their blood, and up to 110 million people may be drinking PFAS-tainted water.

The CDC says more research is needed to determine how low levels of exposure to the chemicals over time affect human health. But the EPA says it may cause...

  • Decreased fertility or increased high blood pressure in pregnant women

  • Developmental effects or delays in children (think: low birth weight, accelerated puberty, behavioral changes)

  • Increased risk of some cancers (like prostate, kidney, or testicular)

  • Decreased immunity (heads up: it may affect your response to certain vaccines)

  • Issues with the body’s natural hormones

  • Increase cholesterol levels and/or risk of obesity

What is the government doing about “forever chemicals?”

Previous admins have been wishy-washy over this issue. During former President Obama’s time in office, the EPA admin put a recommended (but unenforceable) health advisory limit on PFAS in drinking water. But those limits were still considered unsafe. In 2019, former President Trump’s admin appeared to take an aggressive stance against “forever chemicals.” And then-EPA head Scott Pruitt called the issue a “national emergency.” But action against PFAS was again largely hollow. And efforts to regulate the chemicals have stalled in Congress. Because, politics.

Now, the EPA is saying ‘enough is enough.’ And with President Biden’s backing, the agency is taking a new approach to regulating these toxic chemicals. Here’s what’s in the agency’s roadmap to get a handle on the issue:

  • It’s going to create a national PFAS testing strategy. Remember: Data on PFAS and its effects on humans are still limited. So more data is needed to set enforceable standards. And without a standard, it’s tough to fine manufacturers who are attributing to the build-up of these pollutants in the environment. The EPA plans to publish these testing standards in the coming weeks.

    • And to help with that, the EPA plans to create 20 subcategories of the chemicals. Since there are so many types of PFAS, bucketing them into categories will help the agency to quickly make safety regulations.

  • The agency will expedite setting enforceable drinking water limits on certain PFAS substances. But they will need Congress to fork over the funds so the agency can monitor and collect data across the nation’s water systems.

  • It’ll also require manufacturers to provide the deets about the PFAS compounds they use and produce. They also plan to label some as hazardous chemicals – a move that would increase the gov’s ability to hold polluters of those chemicals financially accountable.

  • The EPA also plans to boost monitoring and research of the substances to inform future plans.

The Department of Defense is also expected to clean up its own PFAS contamination at nearly 700 military sites by the end of 2023. And the FDA will expand testing of the US’ food supply to understand exposure to “forever chemicals” in food. The Agriculture Dept. is also getting in on the action, and plans to make moves to prevent PFAS contamination in the foods we eat.

The plan will likely take a few years to be completed, so don’t expect many updates until 2024. But like many things in the US, not everyone is on board. The American Chemistry Council, an org that represents chemical companies, says it supports science-based regulations of the chemicals. But also said ‘not every PFAS is the same and thus, they can’t be regulated the same way. And since some of these chemicals are used in things like solar panels and household tech, it won’t be easy to find other ways to manufacture these products either.

theSkimm

There’s a lot we don’t know yet about “forever chemicals.” But what we do know is alarming. Now, the EPA is sounding the alarm on an emergency that has been long overlooked by the gov. And while change is on its way, the gov needs more data before the effects of its plan are felt. In the meantime, here are a few steps you can take to lower your exposure to forever chemicals, courtesy of the CDC.

Skimm'd by Kamini Ramdeen-Chowdhury and Maria McCallen


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