Briefing

Why experts are so worried about 'forever chemicals'

These man-made chemicals are in the air we breathe, the food we eat, and the water we drink. And some experts believe they're causing a public health crisis.

More than a dozen states are taking steps to ban products that contain so-called "forever chemicals" that have have been "linked to serious health problems," The Wall Street Journal reports. These widely-used substances are present in water, air, and soil, as well as the blood of humans and animals, and some health experts say they are causing a public health crisis. Here's everything you need to know:

What are 'forever chemicals'?

Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are synthetic chemicals that are not known to break down in the environment, which is why they're nicknamed "forever chemicals." PFAS date back to the 1940s, and are used to make products that repel heat, stains, and water. More than 9,000 PFAS have been identified. They are found in nonstick cookware, stain-resistant carpets, microwave popcorn bags, takeout packaging, firefighting foam, and waterproof hiking and camping gear. When these chemicals are produced or used, they can leech into the soil, water, and air, and over time, accumulate in the environment and the blood of people and animals.

Are they damaging to our health?

The Environmental Protection Agency says research has shown that some PFAS are linked to reproductive issues in women, like decreased fertility; developmental delays in children; increased risk of prostate, kidney, and testicular cancers; increased cholesterol levels; and interference with hormones. There are a lot of things the EPA is still trying to understand about PFAS, including how to remove the chemicals from drinking water and how to manage and dispose of them.

The Biden administration announced in the fall of 2021 that it was accelerating efforts to protect Americans from PFAS. The Food and Drug Administration is expanding testing to better estimate how people are exposed to PFAS through food, while the Department of Agriculture is "investigating the causes and implications of PFAS in the food system." The Department of Defense is also conducting cleanup assessments at almost 700 DOD and National Guard locations where PFAS may have been released.

How bad is the problem?

Regulators do not have a clear picture of PFAS contamination in the U.S. The Guardian conducted an analysis of water samples collected in nine different cities in the United States, and found that the water test used by the EPA is so limited in its scope — it only detects 30 types of PFAS compounds — that it likely misses high levels of PFAS pollutants. "There are so many PFAS that we don't know anything about, and if we don't know anything about them, how do we know they aren't hurting us?" Kyla Bennett, policy director at the advocacy group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, told The Guardian. "Why are we messing around?"

What are state officials doing?

More than a dozen states have taken steps to ban products containing PFAS. Maine, for example, now requires companies to make public whether their products contain these chemicals. "Having this disclosure database is an important step for activists, scientists, and the general public being able to really know what is in the products and make informed decisions when they're shopping," Sarah Woodbury, director of advocacy for Defend Our Health, told The Wall Street JournalIn California, Colorado, and Maryland, state officials are working toward eliminating PFAS from cosmetics, and 11 states have already passed laws to ban PFAS in food packaging over the next several years, the Journal reports. 

What are companies doing?

Many fast-food and fast-casual restaurants, including McDonald's and Panera Bread, have said they will reduce or eliminate PFAS from their packaging, and IKEA is restricting the use of PFAS in its textile materials. 3M is one of the largest PFAS manufacturers, and in December 2022 the company said it will phase them out of its products by the end of 2025. PFAS are found in 3M products like Scotchguard fabric protector, and every year, the company nets close to $1.3 billion in sales of PFAS it makes, The Verge reports. 

How can humans limit their exposure to 'forever chemicals'?

The EPA says if your water comes from a public drinking-water system, contact the utility to see if they have tested the water for PFAS, and what steps they might be taking to tackle contamination. If you have a private well, conduct regular testing of the water and consider installing filters that are certified to lower PFAS levels. If you find your water is severely contaminated, find an alternate source of water and use that for drinking, cooking, and brushing your teeth. Check to see if the fish you eat comes from waterways that are contaminated, and if you have questions about whether there are PFAS in the consumer products you keep at home, contact the Consumer Product Safety Commission.

Updated Jan. 17, 2023: This article has been updated throughout to reflect recent developments.

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