‘Forever Chemicals’ Are Now Everywhere, Too
Air Date: Week of September 16, 2022
As many as 200 million Americans’ drinking water supply may be contaminated with PFAS, but federal testing for PFAS is not mandated. (Photo: LuAnn Hunt on Unsplash)
PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, are a class of over 12,000 chemicals known as “forever chemicals” because they hardly break down in the environment. And they’re now found everywhere from microwave popcorn to drinking water supplies to human blood. Laurel Schaider, Senior Scientist at the Silent Spring Institute, joins Host Bobby Bascomb to talk about the research on how these chemicals are affecting us and what we can do about it.
CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth, I’m Steve Curwood.
BASCOMB: And I’m Bobby Bascomb
PFAS are a class of over 12,000 chemicals found in countless household and industrial products. Studies have shown links between PFAS and a variety of human health concerns including certain cancers and fertility issues. In August, EPA proposed a new rule to designate two of the most harmful PFAS chemicals, as “hazardous substances” under the Superfund Law, which would hold polluters accountable for cleaning up contaminated sites. Aside from that step, little widespread action has been taken to limit production and use of PFAS as a chemical class. Laurel Schaider is a Senior Scientist and PFAS expert with the Silent Spring Institute.
SCHAIDER: So, at Silent Spring Institute, we've long been concerned about emerging drinking water contaminants. These are chemicals that are potentially present in drinking water but aren't currently being regulated. Back in 2010, we were conducting a study of emerging drinking water contaminants in the waters of Cape Cod. And one of the chemicals that we looked for were PFAS, and we found that they showed up in a number of the wells that we tested. And since then, our research in this area has really grown.
BASCOMB: Now, you were looking on Cape Cod, but studies estimate that the water supply for some 200 million Americans may be contaminated with PFAS. How does that happen? How does PFAS get into the water supply in so many different places throughout the country?
SCHAIDER: PFAS have become a really pervasive class of environmental contaminants. PFAS are widely used in consumer products. They're also used in a common class of firefighting foams that are used at military bases and airports. PFAS chemicals themselves are very persistent; they've been dubbed "forever chemicals" because they basically don't break down in the environment. And they're also very mobile, so they've spread around not only the groundwater and surface waters here in the US, but they've been found all over the world, even in the blood of polar bears at the Arctic.
BASCOMB: How is it getting into all of these, you know, far flung places of the world?
SCHAIDER: PFAS represents a broad class of different chemicals. Some forms of PFAS are what we call volatile, that means that they can actually end up in the atmosphere, and they can circle around the globe in the air. PFAS are also present in the oceans, and we know the water in the oceans circulates throughout the whole globe. So PFAS can reach far corners of the globe that way as well.
BASCOMB: And as you said, it's not just in water: PFAS is commonly found in the air, in soil. It's also in food that we eat, especially fish and food packaging. It's in cosmetics It's in our clothes. I mean, it's just about everywhere you look, but can you give us some details, please about these other ways that people can be exposed to PFAS other than just water?
SCHAIDER: Food is thought to be a really important source of exposure for the general population. We know that PFAS can enter into the plants and the animals that we eat if there are PFAS in the soil or the water. People who eat more fish and shellfish have been found to have higher levels of PFAS in their blood. PFAS are also widely used in food packaging, for instance, microwave popcorn bags and fast food packaging. PFAS are also widely used in many different types of consumer products. They're in nonstick pans, stain resistant carpets and furniture, waterproof jackets. So they're a part of our daily lives, they're in our indoor environment. They can also end up in dust. PFAS are showing up nearly everywhere that they're tested for.
BASCOMB: So these are called "forever chemicals" because they persist in the environment for so long. It seems like they could also be called "everywhere chemicals," but that name has already been kind of reserved for pthalates, another class of chemicals that are found in similar products. Now, these chemicals are so common that blood tests have actually found PFAS in the vast majority of Americans they sampled. Can you tell us more about that, please?
SCHAIDER: Sure. So testing by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has found that over 99% of Americans have traces of PFAS in our bodies. There are certain PFAS chemicals that we call long-chain PFAS based on their long carbon backbone in their chemical structure. These have the ability to accumulate in our bodies for years. Long chain PFAS are no longer being manufactured in the US or Europe, but they're still a part of our environment, and they're still extremely persistent. Now, newer products contain other PFAS chemicals. Some of these are shorter versions of the long chain PFAS that they're intended to replace, and there are other variations of the chemical structures. So we're still being exposed to many different PFAS chemicals, although they don't necessarily tend to accumulate in our blood in quite the same way.
BASCOMB: So Laurel, chances are solid that you and I and just about everybody listening to us right now, we all have PFAS in our body. What concerns you about that? What are the potential health concerns associated with PFAS exposure?
SCHAIDER: PFAS exposures have been linked to a wide range of harmful health effects. These range from elevated cholesterol, effects on the thyroid, kidney, and liver, certain types of cancers such as testicular and kidney cancer, effects on the immune system. Studies have shown that children with higher levels of PFAS in their blood produce fewer antibodies in response to routine vaccinations. So the fact that all of us are exposed to PFAS is really concerning.
BASCOMB: Now, these chemicals have been around since the 1940s. But I think we can safely say that our relative exposure has dramatically increased in the last decade or two, here. What do we know, if anything, about the long-term exposure to PFAS?
SCHAIDER: Our exposures to PFAS are changing over time. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has actually seen that levels of these long chain PFAS in people's blood is going down over time. However, we're being exposed to different PFAS chemicals now. And we know less about the extent of widespread exposure in the general population to the full suite of PFAS chemicals. And it's really only been in the past 10 or 20 years that chemists have been able to measure the levels of PFAS in people's blood.
BASCOMB: So Laurel, how much exposure is potentially problematic, and does that depend on how people are exposed?
SCHAIDER: As far as we know, there's really no level of exposure that's been identified as being safe. In developing standards for drinking water or fish or other pathways of exposure, EPA and other regulators often develop what's called a reference dose. So this is an amount of PFAS chemical taken into our bodies each day that is not thought to cause a harmful health effect over the long run. These reference doses do take into account body weights, recognizing that children and people with smaller bodies might see health effects at lower levels of exposure. However, one thing we've learned is that these reference doses go down over time as we learn more about the harmful health effects. So what is currently considered a level where we don't think a harmful health effect might occur, that might change in the future with new science if we do learn that these chemicals are actually more toxic than previously thought.
BASCOMB: Well, what groups of people or demographics should be really particularly concerned about consuming PFAS or being exposed to PFAS chemicals? Are any groups at higher health risk than others?
SCHAIDER: So certainly, some people are at greater risk of PFAS exposure than others. Some of these groups are defined by their occupation. We know that firefighters can be exposed to elevated levels of PFAS from their use of certain firefighting foams, and the widespread use of PFAS in the protective gear that they wear. People who work in industries where these chemicals are manufactured or incorporated into products are also likely to have much higher levels of exposure than the general population.
BASCOMB: And what about pregnant women and children? Young people that are still developing are very often at higher risk of chemical exposure because they are, you know, just growing so quickly.
SCHAIDER: That's right. We're more sensitive to chemical exposures early in our lives when our bodies are still growing and developing. Unfortunately, we know that PFAS can be passed along from mothers to their children during pregnancy and breastfeeding. So babies are being born with PFAS already in their bodies.
BASCOMB: Now, I've read that some Native American tribes and Asian migrant communities rely on fishing as both a key source of food and a cultural touchstone. But in many cases, these fishing areas are contaminated with PFAS, and the more fish you eat, the more contamination you're exposed to. Can you tell me more about that, about how tribal peoples and immigrant communities are particularly affected by PFAS?
SCHAIDER: Communities that rely more heavily on fish as a source of dietary protein are likely exposed to higher levels of PFAS, particularly if those fish are coming from an area with contamination. And certainly, we know that other types of contaminants like methyl mercury and PCBs can also accumulate in fish and also lead to disproportionately higher exposures in these populations.
BASCOMB: So, to what degree do you see PFAS contamination as an environmental justice issue? Or is this really just an equal opportunity health hazard?
SCHAIDER: I think that PFAS does represent an environmental justice concern. Low income communities and communities of color may have disproportionately high levels of exposure. Many water supplies that are finding PFAS in their source waters are small water supplies, and particularly if these water supplies are located in a lower income community, that means that they may have fewer options for treating water either at the municipal level or at the household level.
BASCOMB: Now, I understand that there is a new PFAS measurement tool called the Total Organic Fluorine test. Can you explain that a bit for us? What does it measure, and how is it different from the test that EPA currently uses?
SCHAIDER: That's right. So one of the hallmarks of PFAS chemicals are that their chemical structures have many fluorine atoms, and so in certain products, like consumer products, say textiles or food packaging, where we see higher levels of fluorine, that's an indicator to us that that's a product that's been treated with PFAS in some way. So we're able to use that total fluorine as a marker or indicator for the presence of PFAS that are added to those products. However, you can't do that exact same type of test on water. We know that there are many different types of PFAS in water, but current testing methods used by EPA and other entities really only look for 20 or 30 chemicals in general. And there may be other PFAS chemicals that we're missing.
BASCOMB: But as we mentioned earlier, I mean, you said that there's on the order of potentially 12,000 different PFAS chemicals. So looking at each and every individual chemical is going to be a huge challenge.
SCHAIDER: That's right, there's no way that we'll be able to develop the analytical methods to measure each individual PFAS chemical separately. And certainly we don't expect every single chemical will be able to move in the environment or necessarily show up in our bodies. But, there is a large concern about the PFAS that we're missing with the methods where we look for 10 or 20 or 30 specific PFAS chemicals at a time.
BASCOMB: And I should think at the state level, you also need to look closely at the water supply, which is such an important source of exposure.
SCHAIDER: The EPA currently doesn't have enforceable drinking water standards for any PFAS. The EPA has issued health advisory levels for two specific PFAS chemicals, PFOS and PFOA. Just last month, the EPA revised and issued new health advisory levels for these two chemicals that are orders of magnitude lower than the health advisories that they issued in 2016. And this reflects new information showing that PFAS are actually toxic at lower levels than previously thought. However, the fact that there are no enforceable standards means that under federal law, there is no requirement for public water supplies to test for PFAS. A number of states think that the EPA is not moving quickly enough and have actually put into place their own guidelines or enforceable standards that are stricter than the EPA advisories and are enforceable. However, for millions of Americans, their water supply hasn't even been tested for PFAS. That makes me think that we will be discovering other communities in the future that have contamination that we don't know about right now.
BASCOMB: Well, I've been looking at the EPA page on PFAS and they outline the same things that we've been talking about here, you know, the pathways to exposure and health concerns, communities at risk. But I didn't see much about removing these chemicals from our environment, you know, taking them off the market. What kind of response have you seen from EPA or any other government agencies when it comes to the concerns associated with this class of chemicals?
SCHAIDER: Much of the response from the EPA and other agencies has focused on how can we reduce people's exposure in the short term. This includes developing and implementing drinking water treatment technologies to make sure that the water that people drink doesn't contain PFAS. There is an increased interest in understanding the levels of PFAS in food, as well as food packaging, and understanding the other ways that PFAS can be getting into our bodies from our environment.
There's also a recognized need for better remediation strategies. So where PFAS are found to be present at high levels in the environment, we don't really have a lot of tools to remove those PFAS. Because the PFAS chemicals are so persistent, they don't break down under normal conditions. Incineration is one way to break down PFAS chemicals, but there are a range of concerns about using incineration. It's also not a very sustainable or environmentally practical strategy to move waste long distances in order to be incinerated. Something I've seen more at the state level and from retailers and manufacturers is a move away from using PFAS as a class. So a number of states, including here in Massachusetts, have proposed or enacted bans on things like PFAS in food packaging, and a number of fast food chains and retailers have also made pledges to stop using or selling products that contain PFAS.
BASCOMB: Well, what do you at the Silent Spring Institute think should be done about this class of chemicals that's so concerning?
SCHAIDER: PFAS represent a really large public health challenge. At Silent Spring Institute, we support the idea of the essential uses framework, where PFAS shouldn't be used in products where they don't serve an important function for health or safety or where we have other substitutes that provide the same function without posing the same concerns about toxicity. We also think that it's important to develop better chemical testing regulations so that we avoid putting really persistent and toxic chemicals into products in the first place. Here in the US, chemicals can be put into products and widely used before they've been thoroughly screened for toxicity. We find this really concerning and we think there need to be stricter regulations on chemical safety. Another thing that would be helpful would be to add PFAS chemicals to the Superfund Law, or CERCLA, which means that the polluters who are responsible for the contamination will be required to pay for the cleanup.
BASCOMB: Well, for somebody who's listening to us right now, what can they do to protect themselves and their family? What are the best practices here?
SCHAIDER: As individuals, we know there are some things that we can do in our daily lives to help limit our exposures to PFAS and other toxic chemicals. We can try to avoid certain types of products, like microwave popcorn bags or stain resistant carpets and furniture. We can keep the dust levels in our house low by frequently vacuuming or mopping our floors. And we can look for products that say they don't contain PFAS. I recently led a study where we did find that products that were labeled as "stain resistant" or "water resistant" were more likely to contain PFAS. But really, at the end of the day, it shouldn't be on all of us as individuals to have toxic chemicals on our mind when we're at the grocery store or buying clothes or furnishings for our homes and our families. There need to be broader level changes to enforce stricter regulations on chemicals and to keep toxic chemicals out of the marketplace.
BASCOMB: Laurel Schaider is a Senior Scientist with the Silent Spring Institute. Laurel, thank you so much for your time today.
SCHAIDER: Thank you so much for having me and covering this really important topic.
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