Residents across the U.S. are on high alert after the Environment Protection Agency announced new limits for the acceptable amount of PFAS in drinking water.
PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, are “forever chemicals” that don’t break down over time.
The new advisories cut the safe level of PFAS in drinking water down to just four “parts per trillion” — compared to its previous 70 parts per trillion.
Subsequently, local officials across the U.S. are addressing the presence of these forever chemicals in their water supply.
So, how did these harmful chemicals get into drinking water, and what can you do to limit your exposure?
What Are PFAS?
PFAS is a term for man-made chemicals that have been used in industry and consumer products worldwide since the 1950s.
These forever chemicals are in non-stick cookware, water-repellent clothing, stain-resistant fabrics and carpets, some cosmetics, some firefighting foams, and products that resist grease, water, and oil.
While producing and using products with PFAS, the chemicals can migrate into the soil, water and air.
Unfortunately, since they don’t break down naturally, they tend to stay in our environment.
In areas with high PFAS exposure in the environment, trace amounts of these substances are in food products, the environment, and even people and animals.
The Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit organization that researches toxic chemicals and drinking water pollutants, says 200 million Americans could be drinking PFAS-tainted water and 99 percent of Americans may have some amount of PFAS built up in their bodies.
Risks of PFAS Exposure
Trace amounts of PFAS have been linked to numerous health issues.
Philippe Grandjean, a Harvard researcher focusing on the long-term impacts of developmental exposure, says PFAS exposure is associated with kidney and testicular cancer, weakened immunity, endocrine disruption, fertility problems, and decreased birth weight.
People can be exposed to PFAS by:
- Working in occupations such as firefighting or chemicals manufacturing and processing.
- Drinking water contaminated with PFAS.
- Eating certain foods that may contain PFAS, including fish.
- Swallowing contaminated soil or dust.
- Breathing air containing PFAS.
- Using products made with PFAS or packaged in materials containing PFAS, including coating on paper and cardboard wrappers used in fast food and bakery goods furniture and carpets, stain-proof and water-repellent clothes, and personal care and cosmetic products.
How Are We Combating PFAS in Drinking Water?
New studies, new food packaging, lobbying, and bills aim to limit PFAS exposure.
In October 2021, the Environmental Protection Agency launched the PFAS Roadmap. This comprehensive strategy outlines actions over the next three years, including steps to control PFAS at its sources, hold polluters accountable and address the impacts on communities.
How to Limit Your Exposure to PFAS
According to Clean Water Action, you can do a few things in everyday life to limit your exposure to PFAS.
- Not using non-stick cookware
- Cooking at lower temperatures if you have to use non-stick pans
- Popping your own popcorn rather than microwaving bagged popcorn
- Using your own reusable to-go containers
- Using PFAS-free floss
- Buying untreated carpet
- Not using stain-resistant coatings
- Checking labels for PFAS