EPA Sets Limits on PFAS “Forever Chemicals” in Drinking Water, So What Are They?

“Forever chemicals” are making headlines: they are the star villain in Hollywood films like Dark Waters, 3M committed to stop making the class of toxic chemicals by 2025, exposure to them is linked to nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD), and the EPA announced yesterday the first ever limits for PFAS in drinking water. Let’s take a step back, where are they found, what are they and how can we avoid them? 

Where are PFAS Found?

Products in our homes:

PFAS (pronounced P-foss) stands for Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl substances—and they are a class of over 10,000 fluorinated compounds—chemicals that touch virtually every room in our house. They are most notorious for their use in the nonstick coatings on Teflon pans (where the industry was exposed as having decades worth of research showing how the chemicals are toxic). The raincoat you put on to withstand wet, dreary weather. The spray coating on your living room couch, applied to keep it stain and water resistant. In the beauty industry, they are used to create products like long-lasting lipstick, long-wear foundation, and waterproof mascara. They are even found in the gears of wind turbines to help from dirt, birds (gulp) and other natural materials from preventing blades from spinning, and treatments on synthetic turf fields.

Manufacturing and transportation:

Behind the scenes PFAS are widely used in manufacturing equipment and storage bins used to transport raw materials for a wide variety of industries. While there are some companies that have banned PFAS from their products, the larger issue is that fluorinated compounds are also widely used in across a variety of supply chains, which are difficult to control. Essentially they are globally used and therefore global pollutants.

This can mean PFAS showing up in cleaning products used on manufacturing equipment; PFAS used for undisclosed treatments on packaging and raw materials; PFAS in coatings for the plastic containers used to ship raw materials overseas and they contaminate water supplies. Even the paddles used to twist around and mix makeup products, before they go into the cute little packaging can be coated with PFAS. They can sneak their way into product without companies having any awareness. For instance, this can occur in the treatments of pigments on packaging. These colorants are sometimes treated with PFAS to help the color last longer, but brands don’t often know it’s been done. Packaging supplier may use fluorine treatments for packaging—in certain plastics like high-density polyethylene (HDPE)—without necessarily disclosing this to brands. 

Why Are PFAS Problematic?

PFAS don’t easily break down in our bodies or environment which is where they got their nickname as “forever chemicals” because they NEVER leave the environment. Let’s pause on this for a moment and look at a different class of chemicals, bisphenols which are also problematic for different reasons. We know that the human body typically rids itself of bisphenols within three to five days, which shows that intervention can work to reduce our exposure. The difference with PFAS is these chemicals are fat loving and don’t break down, so you’re carrying around an unwanted visitor in your body long after you use a product.

According to the CDC, more than 95 percent of the US population has PFAS in their bodies. Of course, none of this would matter if they were safe— but they are widely documented as toxic. PFAS fall under a class of chemicals known as PBT— Persistent, Bio-accumulative, and Toxic, and these are some of the worse creepers around. They have been linked to a wide range of problems including hormone disruption, birth defects, liver disease and certain cancers. Worse still: it doesn’t take much exposure for the chemicals to add up. One peer-reviewed study recently found that found that a single scratch on a Teflon-coated pan can release thousands of particles of these fluorinated substances into our foods.

Brands Should Be Banning and Testing for PFAS, But It’s Not that Simple

First, we need brands to phase out or not use PFAS in their products (REI just made the bold commitment to phase out the use of PFAS by 2026). Second, brands need to ask hard questions of their supply chains, because as we noted above, banning ingredients is the easy part, ensuring a clean supply chain is nearly impossible. This is where testing comes into play and like everything in this field, testing is complicated and currently flawed.

In short, if you test for PFAS (or its breakdown components fluorine) you will find PFAS. Given there is over 10,000+ different types of PFAS chemicals (some estimate over 23,000) this poses a real challenge for companies who are trying to pin point where the contamination may be occurring. Scientists have also agreed that currently there is no standardized or clear best practice for testing for PFAS, many note that the most accurate way to test is for specific compounds rather than fluorine. So on top of all of these challenges, brands should be testing their products, but the scientific community also needs to rapidly create standardized, better methods for testing for PFAS that can actually help guide brands in the right direction.

How We Take Action on PFAS

Thankfully, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has made some major commitments to addressing PFAS chemicals, releasing strict new drinking water limits. In 2021 the EPA created a roadmap to study and begin to regulate PFAS, and to set drinking water limits on some of the chemicals, require manufacturers to provide detailed reporting and designate two of the most well-known PFAS as hazardous under the Superfund law.

That’s a great start, for sure, but what we ultimately need is a comprehensive approach to phasing out PFAS. We need a policy solution, a business solution, an innovation solution, and an analytical solution (testing). On the policy front, we need a federal ban that will entirely remove these global pollutants from being used in the first place. On the business side, we need to call on companies to do better, they need to innovate to find new and safer solutions and ask hard questions of their supply chains. We need green chemists to be creating different solutions for very useful but also very toxic class of chemicals. And we need the scientific community to establish clear testing methodologies that help us address PFAS hiding in supply chains.

And then of course, there’s the consumers—we need consumers to push companies to stop using these fluorinated compounds, while simultaneously understanding the complexity of what it means—which is that it’s not going to happen overnight. 

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