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Understanding PFAS: The “Forever Chemicals”

What are PFAS?

PFAS, commonly referred to as “forever chemicals,” are a group of man-made chemicals used extensively in both consumer and industrial products. Due to their chemical structure, most PFAS don't easily degrade, earning them their notorious nickname. This guide aims to offer a comprehensive understanding of PFAS and provide suggestions on minimizing your exposure.

What does PFAS stand for?

PFAS stands for per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances. These chemicals are characterized by a sturdy carbon-fluorine bond, resulting in their prolonged persistence in the environment and accumulation in living organisms, including humans. Given their prevalence in everyday products, they could also be dubbed “everywhere chemicals.”

Why is PFAS getting so much attention now?

For decades, various chemical plants and industries have been responsible for releasing PFAS-contaminated waste, adversely affecting the environment and people's health. Although companies have been aware of their harmful effects since the 1950s, this information was kept hidden from the public. Today, we are more informed about PFAS and its potential dangers.

Traditional Analysis Pfas - EPS website source

A Brief Historical Overview

In 1998, 3M alerted the EPA that PFOS, found in its popular Scotchgard product, accumulates in blood and had been discovered in blood samples from individuals who weren’t exposed on the job. This revelation prompted more significant EPA scrutiny of PFAS.

Communities near PFAS manufacturing sites face heightened health risks. For instance, in Parkersburg, West Virginia, about 80,000 residents settled a lawsuit against Dupont, which had been contaminating ground and river water with PFAS for decades. A subsequent study found a link between PFOA/C8 and various serious health conditions, including cancer.

Additionally, for over 30 years, a plant outside Fayetteville, North Carolina, dumped PFAS-contaminated waste into the Cape Fear River. Only in 2017 did the public learn of the contamination from GenX (HFPO dimer acid and its ammonium salt) and other PFAS compounds.

The Wolverine Worldwide Tannery in Rockford, Michigan, also contaminated land and water sources with PFAS waste in the 1960s. The EPA is currently contemplating designating the former tannery and its old dump as federal Superfund sites.

Moreover, between 2012 and 2020, the Physicians for Social Responsibility reported that oil and gas companies used PFAS in over 1,200 fracking wells across six states.

Where do you find PFAS?

PFAS have been globally utilized since the 1950s in various consumer goods. They are found in products like firefighting foam, non-stick cookware, cosmetics, and materials that offer protection against grease, oil, and water. Whether enjoying outdoor activities or simply living everyday life, PFAS have become ubiquitous.

PFAS in Food: PFAS can contaminate food through takeout containers, pizza boxes, microwave popcorn bags, and non-stick cookware. Although the FDA hasn’t restricted PFAS use in food packaging, state authorities and the public are taking steps to protect consumers. Non-stick cookware is another potential source of PFAS. Even if labeled PFOA-free, it doesn’t guarantee safety.

PFAS in Cosmetics: Many cosmetics, even "green" ones, might contain PFAS. Some manufacturers add PFAS to enhance product longevity and spreadability. Others get contaminated unintentionally.

PFAS in Clothing and Home Goods: PFAS have been detected in a variety of textiles, from athletic wear to kitchen linens. These compounds can accumulate in household dust, potentially leading to absorption through the skin.

PFAS in Firefighting Foams: These foams, especially those used on military bases and airports, are major sources of PFAS contamination.

PFAS in Landfills and Wastewater: Discarded products release PFAS into landfills. Most wastewater treatment plants fail to remove PFAS, causing contamination in agriculture and subsequently our food.

PFAS in Drinking Water: PFAS contamination in drinking water is widespread. Recent studies have even found PFAS in bottled water.

Are PFAS alternatives safer?

While there's a push to find safer alternatives to PFAS, most substitutes are other PFAS chemicals. In the 1990s, 3M replaced PFOS in Scotchgard with a supposedly safer alternative. However, researchers globally have expressed concerns about the safety of current PFAS substitutes. Even if they exit the human body faster, their accumulation in the environment might still lead to pollution over time.

What are governments doing to protect people from PFAS?

Currently, there are no federal standards for PFAS discharges. In 2021, the EPA issued a “PFAS roadmap” with guidelines for setting water treatment standards and health assessment protocols. The U.S. Congress is considering comprehensive PFAS legislation, and many states are contemplating bans or restrictions on PFAS.

Europe is ahead in this race. The European Union is looking to ban thousands of PFAS chemicals, with a potential final agreement by 2025.

How can you avoid PFAS?

While complete avoidance is nearly impossible, some steps can minimize exposure:

  • Opt for non-PFAS-containing household items.

  • Use stainless steel, cast iron, or ceramic cookware.

  • Read personal care product labels meticulously.

  • If your water source has PFAS, consider a water filter.

  • Purchase "purified" bottled water.

  • Stay updated with organizations like EHN (Environmental Health News) for the latest on PFAS.

  • EHN (Environmental Health News) continues its commitment to report on PFAS, ensuring companies and officials are held accountable.

  • Explore the EHN (Environmental Health News) website extensive archive on PFAS by using the search tool on our homepage.

As of the end of 2021, both Massachusetts (MA) and Connecticut (CT) had taken various actions in response to the growing concerns about PFAS contamination. Here is an overview of the actions each state had taken up to that point.

Massachusetts (MA):

  • Drinking Water Standards: Massachusetts' Department of Environmental Protection (MassDEP) established drinking water standards for PFAS. As of 2022, MassDEP set a Maximum Contaminant Level (MCL) for six PFAS substances combined at 20 parts per trillion (ppt).

  • Testing: MassDEP initiated a statewide sampling program to test public water supplies for PFAS.

  • Advisories: Massachusetts issued advisories regarding the consumption of fish from water bodies known to be contaminated with PFAS.

  • Remediation: The state has been actively identifying sites with potential PFAS contamination and has been working on remediation efforts.

  • Regulations: MassDEP has established regulations for notifying the public about PFAS in drinking water.

  • Outreach and Education: The state has made efforts to educate the public and water suppliers about PFAS, its health effects, and ways to reduce exposure.

Connecticut (CT):

  • Drinking Water Standards: Connecticut's Department of Public Health (DPH) and Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP) had been working on establishing state-specific MCLs for PFAS in drinking water.

  • Testing: Connecticut launched a statewide initiative to test public water sources for PFAS, especially focusing on areas near potential sources of contamination.

  • Advisories: CT DEEP issued advisories, especially for areas known to have PFAS contamination, to ensure that the public is aware of potential health risks.

  • Remediation: Connecticut identified and took action on sites with PFAS contamination. One notable site is around Bradley International Airport, where firefighting foam releases led to PFAS contamination in nearby waterways.

  • Firefighting Foam: Connecticut made efforts to replace PFAS-containing firefighting foam with alternatives. The state also implemented measures for the safe disposal of existing stockpiles of PFAS foams.

  • PFAS Action Plan: Connecticut established a PFAS Action Plan, a comprehensive approach to address the entire lifecycle of PFAS, from production and usage to disposal and remediation.

Both states, recognizing the widespread use and persistence of PFAS in the environment, had been proactive in taking steps to protect the public. For the latest initiatives, regulations, and standards, it's advisable to consult the respective state's environmental and public health department websites.

"Charting the Path Forward: Unraveling the Legacy of PFAS and Advocating for a Safer Tomorrow"

In our in-depth exploration of PFAS, we've underscored the sheer ubiquity and long-lasting nature of these "forever chemicals." From everyday consumer products to widespread industrial applications, PFAS have become an undeniable and omnipresent part of modern living. Yet, with increasing revelations about their potential health risks and the historical negligence surrounding their use and disposal, it's evident that more needs to be done to mitigate their impacts. While governments globally, especially in places like Massachusetts and Connecticut, have begun to respond to PFAS-related concerns through regulations, testing, and public outreach, individuals also have a role to play. By being informed and making conscious choices, we can reduce our exposure and advocate for healthier, safer alternatives. The journey to understanding and addressing PFAS is far from over, but with continued vigilance, research, and collective action, we can strive for a future where our environment and our health are no longer compromised by these persistent pollutants.


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