For decades, scientists, public health officials and citizen advocates have been sounding the alarm over perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, commonly known as PFAS. These manufactured chemicals are used to make pans, non-sticks, waterproof clothing, and stain-resistant furniture and carpets.
That’s all fine and dandy, but these molecules are built with strong carbon-fluorine bonds that don’t degrade, hence the nickname “forever chemicals.” PFAS can end up in rivers, soil and air. There are also bodies. Not so good, because these chemicals can increase the risk of health problems, including certain cancers, obesity, pregnancy complications and a weakened immune system.
In this issue, journalist Melba Newsome explains how the US federal government is finally moving to try to circumvent PFAS exposure in humans, in an effort to reduce the impact on health.
Some people first learned about PFAS when the chemicals were found by scientists in the Cape Fear River in North Carolina, their home state. “These scientists asked for a certain piece of equipment and went to test it in the river,” he told me. “This is when it was discovered” [companies] had been dumping crap in our river for 40 years. “
The discovery became a huge issue in North Carolina, and subsequent research found that PFAS contamination of drinking water, food and air is ubiquitous. “When I first started looking I said, ‘Why?’ [are] PFAS in everything for goodness sake? “A new journalist recalled the health and environment. “This happened like a miracle. That excited me. It is clear that PFAS is used in the field and can make the foundation last longer.
The focus from Environmental Protection Acting Administrator Michael S. Regan, who is from North Carolina, and other officials is getting more attention, Newsome said. The agency has substantially lowered the levels of PFAS in drinking water that are considered safe. But in late August, the EPA proposed designating two specific types of PFAS, known as PFOA and PFOS, as hazardous substances that would require companies to report emissions into the environment above certain levels and require polluters to clean up the contamination.
Some manufacturers have stopped using PFAS, but because of the longevity of their chemicals, they will stay in people’s bodies for years. “Even though it was ingested 15 or 20 years ago,” Newsome said. The newer “GenX” alternatives are also health concerns.
New federal limits for PFAS contamination will help reduce future exposures, but how do we protect ourselves from the chemicals already there? Efforts to safely dispose of PFAS or clean up contaminated water and soil will take time, and it will take time for municipal water systems to filter out forms of the chemical.
I had one last question for Newsome: Do I really have to pack my pans? “Yes, you do,” he told me. “Throwing iron is a much better cookie anyway.” Maybe I won’t send those sticks to the landfill, where PFAS can seep into the ground water. But I am glad to reduce the iron to dust with my hot iron.
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