What are PFAS and why is the EPA warning about them in drinking water? An environmental health scientist explains


Catherine Crawford, Middlebury

“PFAS? What is PFAS?”

You may hear this term in the news as the federal government considers new rules and guidelines for chemicals. Even if the acronym is new to you, you probably already know what PFAS do. That’s because they’re found in everything from non-stick cookware to carpets to ski wax.

PFAS stands for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, which are a large group of man-made chemicals – currently estimated to number around 9,000 individual chemical compounds – that are widely used in consumer products and industry. They can make products resistant to water, grease and stains and protect against fire.

Waterproof outdoor clothing and cosmetics, stain-resistant upholstery and carpeting, food packaging designed to prevent liquid or grease leakage, and some firefighting equipment often contain PFAS. In fact, a recent study found that most products labeled as stain- or water-resistant contained PFAS, and another study found that this is even true among products labeled as “non-toxic” or “green.” . PFAS are also found in unexpected places like high performance waxes for skis and snowboards, floor waxes and medical devices.

At first glance, PFAS seem pretty useful, so you might be wondering “what’s the deal?”

The short answer is that PFAS are harmful to human health and the environment.

Some of the same chemical properties that make PFAS attractive in products also mean that these chemicals will persist in the environment for generations. Due to the widespread use of PFAS, these chemicals are now present in water, soil, and living organisms and can be found in almost every part of the planet, including arctic glaciers, marine mammals, remote communities living on subsistence diets, and in 98% of the American public.

The Environmental Protection Agency recently issued new warnings about their risk in drinking water, even at very low levels.

Health risks from exposure to PFAS

Once people are exposed to PFAS, the chemicals stay in their bodies for a long time — months to years, depending on the specific compound — and they can build up over time.

Research consistently demonstrates that PFAS are associated with a variety of adverse health effects. A recent review by a panel of experts reviewing research on PFAS toxicity concluded with a high degree of certainty that PFAS contribute to thyroid disease, elevated cholesterol, liver damage, and kidney and brain cancer. testicles.

Stain resistant fabrics and carpets often contain PFAS. Ok via Getty Images

Additionally, they concluded with a high degree of certainty that PFASs also affect babies exposed in utero by increasing their likelihood of being born with a lower birth weight and responding less effectively to vaccines, while impairing the development of the gland. women’s breasts, which can have a negative impact on the health of the mother. ability to breastfeed.

The review also found evidence that PFAS may contribute to a number of other disorders, although further research is needed to confirm existing findings: inflammatory bowel disease, reduced fertility, breast cancer and increased risk of miscarriage and development of high blood pressure and preeclampsia during pregnancy. . Additionally, current research suggests that babies exposed before birth are at higher risk for obesity, early puberty and reduced fertility later in life.

Collectively, this is a formidable list of diseases and disorders.

Who regulates PFAS?

PFAS chemicals have been around since the late 1930s, when a DuPont scientist accidentally created one during a lab experiment. DuPont called it Teflon, which eventually became a household name for its use on nonstick pans.

Decades later, in 1998, Scotchgard maker 3M notified the Environmental Protection Agency that a PFAS chemical was appearing in human blood samples. At the time, 3M said low levels of the manufactured chemical had been detected in people’s blood as early as the 1970s.

Despite the long list of serious health risks associated with PFAS and the huge federal investment in PFAS-related research in recent years, PFAS have not been federally regulated in the United States.

The EPA has issued health advisories and guidelines for two PFAS compounds – PFOA and PFOS – in drinking water, although these guidelines are not legally enforceable standards. And the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry has a toxicology profile for PFAS.

Federal rules could be coming. Congress is considering legislation to ban PFAS in certain food packaging. The EPA has a roadmap for the PFAS regulations it is considering, including drinking water regulations. The Biden administration has said it also plans to list PFOA and PFOS as hazardous substances under the Superfund Act, a move that worries utilities and businesses that use PFAS-containing products or processes. due to cleaning costs.

States, meanwhile, have taken their own steps to protect residents from the risk of exposure to PFAS.

At least 21 states have laws targeting PFAS in various uses, such as food packaging and carpeting. But relying on state laws imposes burdens on state agencies tasked with enforcing them and creates a patchwork of regulations that, in turn, force businesses and consumers to navigate the regulatory nuances of a state. to the other.

So what can you do about PFAS?

Based on current scientific knowledge, most people are exposed to PFAS primarily through their diet, although drinking water and airborne exposures may be significant for some people, particularly if they live near industries or known contaminations related to PFAS.

The best ways to protect yourself and your family from the risks associated with PFAS are to educate yourself about potential sources of exposure.

Products labeled as water or stain resistant have a good chance of containing PFAS. Check the ingredients on the products you buy and watch for chemical names containing “fluoride-“. Specific trade names, such as Teflon and Gore-Tex, are also likely to contain PFAS.

Check to see if there are sources of contamination near you, such as in drinking water or PFAS-related industries in the area. Some states do not test or report for PFAS contamination, so a lack of readily available information does not necessarily mean the area is free of PFAS problems.

For more information on PFAS, see the websites of the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, the EPA, and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or contact your local public health department or department. ‘State.

If you think you have been exposed to PFAS and are concerned about your health, contact your healthcare provider. The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry has a brief report to help healthcare professionals understand the clinical implications of PFAS exposure.

Kathryn Crawford, Assistant Professor of Environmental Health, Middlebury

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


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