Last week, the Environmental Protection Agency [EPA] put out a new advisory warning that even tiny amounts of some of PFAS chemicals found in drinking water may pose risks.
Scientists are finding PFAS everywhere. When products like this end up in landfills, these pollutants seep into our soil, air, and drinking water. That’s how PFAS are ending up in food, wildlife, and even our bloodstream.
So, how do we navigate a world filled with harmful chemicals?
Arlene Blum is a biophysical chemist and the executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute, and she spends a lot of her time educating the public about PFAS, including members of Congress.
She guides us through what PFAS are, why they’re a problem, and what can be done about them.
What are PFAS?
Short for “per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances,” PFAS are a class of thousands of man-made chemicals that have been around since the 1940s.
And as the nickname suggests, “forever chemicals” are here for a long time. They don’t break down, which has led to widespread contamination.
Manufacturers use PFAS to make products resistant to oil, heat, stain, or water. They are found in everything from cosmetics, to outdoor gear, non-stick pans, food wrappers, and countless others, according to the CDC.
Blum says PFAS are her “favorite” because they are the best and the worst.
“They’re the best in that they’re very useful at keeping things dry, keeping grease out of things,” she said. “But they’re the worst because… they never break down, and all of the ones that have been studied have been found to be harmful.”
In 2016, the EPA said PFAS were not a threat at low levels: 70 parts per trillion. The agency just changed that advisory, lowering the “safe” threshold to essentially zero. PFAS still pose risks at levels so low that they’re not detected, the EPA said.
What do PFAS do to your health?
In short, nothing good.
Scientists are still learning about the effects of PFAS on humans, but studies show these chemicals can harm different systems in the body.
The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry says exposure to PFAS may lead to higher risk for kidney or testicular cancer, increased cholesterol levels, and damage to the liver and immune system.
Additionally, a study published in the journal Hypertension found that PFAS can lead to high blood pressure in middle-aged women.
Blum says that even though everyone likely has PFAS in their body, that doesn’t mean every person will develop these conditions. These are potential side effects that have been found as a result of exposure to these pollutants.
What’s being done about this?
U.S. government officials have taken a number steps to address PFAS pollution on the state and federal level.
Along with the recent drinking water advisory, the EPA announced $1 billion in infrastructure grant funding to address pollution from PFAS and other chemical contaminants. Their goal is to improve health protections with things like water testing.
In October 2021, the White House announced initiatives to protect communities and the environment from PFAS. The Biden administration listed steps for eight government agencies, including the Food and Drug Administration, to tackle PFAS pollution.
Several officials testified before a Senate committee hearing in 2021 about the Department of Defense’s measures to deal with these chemicals, specifically at defense sites around the country. According to the DOD, it has invested more than $1.5 billion in PFAS research and cleanup efforts and is trying to help people on the frontlines that have been affected the most – like blood testing for firefighters that are exposed to the PFAS in firefighting foam.
Blum says that government regulation would force companies to take action, but the responsibility also falls on the private sector to stop using PFAS in their products.
“Manufacturers can move faster than the government,” she said. “But the possibility of government regulation definitely moves them forward.”
What can I do?
Well, that’s complicated.
Blum pointed out that this burden shouldn’t fall on the shoulders of the consumer, and PFAS can be hard to avoid completely. She says it’s really up to the manufacturers and the government to stop – or ban – using these chemicals.
Plenty of companies have pledged to stop using these compounds in any products, including some clothing, fast food, and outdoor sports brands. The Green Science Policy institute put together a list of brands of products that are PFAS-free.
According to Blum, if you already own something that contains PFAS, it’s safe to use as long as you’re using it correctly (for instance: don’t overheat your non-stick pans). She just asks that you look for another alternative when it’s time to replace them.
“You can wear your jacket, you can use your pan, but don’t buy another one [that was manufactured with PFAS],” she said.
MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
They’re called forever chemicals because they break down extremely slowly. And because they’ve been put in so many things, they are now everywhere – in soil, in our drinking water, inside our bodies. We’re talking about PFAS. The Environmental Protection Agency just revised its guidance about PFAS in drinking water. The agency is warning they could pose health risks if present at all. Well, let’s bring in Arlene Blum to discuss. She’s a biophysical chemist and the executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute. Welcome.
ARLENE BLUM: Delighted to be here.
KELLY: All right. So I’m trying to wrap my head around this. In a few sentences, give us the primer on what exactly PFAS are.
BLUM: Well, PFAS are a class of thousands of chemicals. And I like to say they are both the best and the worst. They’re the best in that they’re very useful at keeping things dry, keeping grease out of things – they’re slippery – keeping things moving. But they’re the worst because, as you said, they never break down. And all the ones that have been studied have been found to be harmful.
KELLY: I mentioned that they’re in soil. They’re in water. They’re also in things – you said they’re slippery – they’re in things like nonstick pans, things like rain jackets. What else?
BLUM: We’re scientists who have studied PFAS. We tested cosmetics and found them in about half the cosmetics we tested, things like waterproof mascara, shiny lip gloss, shiny foundation. They used to be used in carpets for stain resistance, but the carpet industry has moved away from them, which is great. That was the biggest source of exposure for kids in the past. They’re used in the outdoor industry a lot. So they can be very useful. But the good news is they’re usually not necessary, and there usually are safer alternatives.
KELLY: The EPA, as we mentioned, is warning that they pose health risks. It sounds like just about all of us would have been exposed to them. What kind of health risks are we talking?
BLUM: So we do all have some PFAS in our body, unfortunately. And across the whole population, they increase the risk of certain kinds of cancer, some infertility. They can contribute to obesity, kidney disease. There’s a whole wide range of health effects. They can adversely affect almost all of our organs. But that doesn’t mean that everyone’s going to get these effects. This is just across the population.
KELLY: It’s the range of things that could happen. So in terms of the way forward here, as you see it, the way forward is to keep them out of products going forward. So there’s a role here for the government. There’s also a huge role, it would seem, for the private sector.
BLUM: Absolutely. And indeed, the carpet industry, for example, decided ahead of regulation to find better alternatives for carpets. The outdoor industry is on the path towards that. Food packaging – there have been a number of announcements that big fast-food companies are no longer having PFAS in their packaging. The cosmetics companies are moving away from it. So this is something where manufacturers can move faster than the government, but the possibility of government regulation definitely moves some forward. And it looks like there’s legislation all over the United States, in the various states, proposing regulation on PFAS in food packaging and cosmetics, in textiles, in a wide range of products.
KELLY: I’m thinking, I put on lipstick this morning. I had a nonstick pan sitting on my stove as I walked out. I mean, what can each of us do personally? What should we be thinking about doing to keep these things out of us, out of our lives?
BLUM: Well, in terms of nonstick pans, the PFAS is used to make the nonstick pan, but the pan itself probably isn’t going to be a problem. So – and it’s the same with Gore-Tex. PFAS is used to make Gore-Tex, to make outdoor jackets. But when you’re wearing it, it shouldn’t be a health problem. However, the manufacturing of your Teflon pan and the Gore-Tex jacket is a big problem. So I like to tell people, you can wear your jacket, you can use your pan, but don’t buy another one.
KELLY: That is Arlene Blum, biophysical chemist and executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute. Thank you.
BLUM: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.