For decades, scientists, public health officials, and citizen advocates have sounded the alarm about perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, commonly known as PFAS. These manufactured chemicals are used to make nonstick cookware, waterproof clothing, and stain-resistant furniture and carpeting.
All nice things, but these molecules are built on strong carbon-fluorine bonds that don’t break down, hence the nickname “Chemicals Forever.” PFAS can end up in rivers, soil, and air. They are in our bodies too. That’s not good, because these chemicals can increase your risk of a range of health problems, including some types of cancer, obesity, pregnancy complications, and a weakened immune system.
In this issue, freelance writer Melba Newsome explains how the US federal government is finally taking steps to try to reduce exposure to PFAS in humans, in an effort to reduce the health effects.
Newsom first learned about PFAS when scientists discovered the chemicals in the Cape Fear River in North Carolina, her home state. “These scientists got some fancy equipment and went to test it in the river,” she told me. That’s when they found out [companies] They’ve been throwing trash into our river for 40 years.”
The discovery became a major problem in North Carolina, and subsequent research found PFAS contamination of drinking water, food, and air to be ubiquitous. “When I first started looking at this, I said, ‘Why [are] PFAS in everything, for good? remembers Newsom, the health and environment journalist. “It was such a miracle product. It’s even in makeup.” That amazed me. PFAS is obviously used in waterproof mascaras and to make foundation last longer.
Newsom said the increased focus from EPA Administrator Michael S. The agency has significantly reduced levels of PFAS in drinking water that it considers safe. And in late August, the EPA proposed designating two specific types of PFAS — known as PFOA and PFOS — as hazardous substances, which would require companies to report releases into the environment above certain levels and would hold polluters responsible for cleaning up the pollution.
Manufacturers have discontinued some PFAS, but due to their longevity, these chemicals will remain in people’s bodies for years. Even if they took it 15 or 20 years ago, Newsom said. Newer “GenX” alternatives also raise health concerns.
New federal limits on PFAS contamination should help reduce future exposures, but how do we protect ourselves from chemicals already in place? 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 prepare to filter out the chemicals.
I had one last question for Newsome: Should I pack my nonstick pan? “Yes, you are,” Newsom told me. “Cast iron is a much better piece of cookware anyway.” I probably wouldn’t send those non-stick pans to a landfill, where PFAS can leach into the water table. But I am happy to dust my cast iron skillet.