EPA cracks down on ‘forever chemicals’ in tap water: What PFAS are, where they are, and why they’re harmful

by | Mar 14, 2023 | Science

The US Environmental Protection Agency is regulating PFAS, or “forever chemicals,” in drinking water for the first time.Catherine Falls Commercial/Getty ImagesPFAS, or “forever chemicals,” are widespread, hazardous to human health, and don’t break down.The US Environmental Protection Agency is taking the first steps toward federal regulation of PFAS.Here’s what you should know about PFAS, how they harm health, how you’re exposed, and what to do.PFAS, or “forever chemicals,” are an increasingly notorious and widespread contaminant, and the federal government is about to take a giant step toward regulating them.The US Environmental Protection Agency just released a proposal for enforceable standards for six PFAS compounds in drinking water. The agency aims to finalize the proposal by the end of the year.That would set a federal maximum on the amount of those PFAS allowed in drinking water, putting the PFAS class of chemicals in the ranks of regulated contaminants, alongside well-known toxic substances like lead, arsenic, and nitrate.People drink water from a six spigot water fountain in New York City.Mario Tama/Getty ImagesPFAS are a hazard to human health, and you’re likely exposed to them every day. Still, companies, governments, and you yourself can take action to protect your health. Here’s what you need to know.What are PFAS, aka forever chemicals?The abbreviation PFAS stands for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances. This class of chemicals was invented in the 1930s and quickly became ubiquitous.Since PFAS are resistant to heat, water, and grease, companies use them in many everyday products like food packaging, clothing, and cosmetics.Today, humans have created thousands of substances in the PFAS class. Two of them have been the focus of most scientific research: perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonic acid (PFOS).The new EPA proposal would set the threshold for those two substances at 4 nanograms per liter of drinking water. It also proposes a “hazard index” to set a limit on the combined quantity of four other PFAS in drinking water: PFNA, GenX, PFBS, and PFHxS.PFOA and PFOS have been phased out of most US production since the early 2000s, but other PFAS are still commonly manufactured.Story continuesPFAS are nicknamed “forever chemicals” because most of them don’t break down. Wherever they end up — in the environment, or in our bodies — they stay.Where are PFAS? How am I exposed to forever chemicals?A child drinks bottled water in Reynosa, Mexico.Daniel Becerril/ReutersPFAS have been found in food, food packaging, bottled water, makeup, menstrual products, toilet paper, artificial turf, and dental floss — to name a few examples. The chemicals are also typically a key ingredient in firefighting foams and water-repellent clothing like rain jackets.They’re not limited to your things, though. During the production of PFAS, and during the use of products containing them, the chemicals get into the air, soil, and water. Rainwater and soil across the globe likely contain unsafe levels of PFAS.”One of the number one sources of exposure is drinking water, but also our food,” Carmen Messerlian, an environmental epidemiologist who studies PFAS at Harvard’s TH Chan School of Public Health, told Insider.Because of their widespread use, and because they don’t break down, PFAS are in the blood of humans and animals all over the planet. They’re probably even in the dust in your home.Communities across the US have especially high PFAS contamination in their drinking water, often due to a nearby industrial or military facility. Contaminated communities raised some of the earliest alarm about PFAS by suing manufacturers, in states including Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, and West Virginia.How do PFAS affect your health?Peer-reviewed studies have linked PFAS to multiple cancers, high cholesterol, …

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