Forever chemicals’ health risks are getting attention

For decades, scientists, public health officials and citizen advocates have sounded the alarm over perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, commonly known as PFAS. These manufactured chemicals are used to make pans nonstick, clothing waterproof, and furniture and carpets stain resistant.

All nice things, but these molecules are built on strong carbon-fluorine bonds that don’t degrade, hence the nickname “forever chemicals.” PFAS can end up in rivers, soil and air. They’re in our bodies too. That’s not so nice, because these chemicals can increase the risk of a host of health issues, including certain cancers, obesity, pregnancy complications and a weakened immune system.

In this issue, freelance writer Melba Newsome explains how the U.S. federal government is finally making moves to try to limit PFAS exposure in humans, in an effort to reduce health impacts.

Newsome first learned about PFAS when the chemicals were discovered by scientists in the Cape Fear River in North Carolina, her home state. “These scientists got some fancy piece of equipment and went to test it in the river,” she told me. “That’s when they discovered that [companies] had been dumping crap in our river for 40 years.”

The discovery became a huge issue in North Carolina, and subsequent research found that PFAS contamination of drinking water, food and air is ubiquitous. “When I first started looking at this I said, ‘Why [are] PFAS in everything, for goodness sake?’ ” Newsome, a health and environment journalist, recalled. “It was like this miracle product. It’s even in makeup.” That startled me. Evidently PFAS are used in waterproof mascara and to make foundation last longer.

Increased focus from Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael S. Regan, who is from North Carolina, and other officials is giving it more attention, Newsome said. The agency has substantially lowered levels of PFAS in drinking water that are considered 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 accountable for cleaning up contamination.

Manufacturers have stopped using some PFAS, but because of their longevity, those chemicals will linger in peoples’ bodies for years. “Even if they ingested it 15 or 20 years ago,” Newsome said. Newer “GenX” alternatives are also raising health concerns.

New federal limits for PFAS contamination should help reduce future exposures, but how do we protect ourselves from the chemicals already out there? Efforts to dispose of PFAS safely or clean up contaminated water and soil will take time, and it will take time for municipal water systems to gear up to filter out the chemicals.

I had one last question for Newsome: Do I really have to pack up my nonstick pan? “Yes, you do,” Newsome told me. “Cast iron is a much better piece of cookware anyway.” Maybe I won’t send those nonstick pans to the landfill, where the PFAS can leach into the groundwater. But I’m happy to dust off my cast iron skillet.

Nancy Shute is editor in chief of Science News Media Group. Previously, she was an editor at NPR and US News & World Report, and a contributor to National Geographic and Scientific American. She is a past president of the National Association of Science Writers.