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Is It Too Late to Do Something About Dangerous ‘Forever Chemicals’?
April 19, 2024

Is It Too Late to Do Something About Dangerous ‘Forever Chemicals’?

Reading Time: 6 minutes

PFAS drinking water limits: Are the EPA ‘forever chemicals’ rules too little too late?

For Esme Deprez, it started with waterproof mascara. Then, there was shampoo. Basically, once she started looking around for chemicals known as PFAS, she realized they were everywhere, including, probably, in Deprez herself.

‘Researchers have found PFAS everywhere they’ve thought to look: the umbilical cords of newborns in Taiwan, the breastmilk of moms in Sweden, polar bears, even air and rainwater worldwide,’ Deprez said. ‘If you are alive today, you have PFAS in you.’

The problem with PFAS, also known as ‘forever chemicals,’ is their durability. They don’t break down, so once they get into your body, they just stay there. And then they start piling up. That pileup has been linked to all sorts of problems—cancer, infertility, high cholesterol. Even worse, because these chemicals don’t decompose, they simply slosh around, moving from our stuff to our bodies to the soil and the water—and back again. That’s why, last week, the Biden administration took what seemed like a big step toward eliminating the forever chemical threat by setting strict limits on PFAS in drinking water.

On a recent episode of What Next, we spoke about the forever chemical dilemma—and why a big step by Biden feels to so many like a half-measure. Our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Mary Harris: Can you explain what are PFAS?

Esme Deprez: PFAS is short for perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances. That’s a mouthful, but it’s an enormous class of many thousands of man-made compounds. They’re sometimes called forever chemicals, and that’s because they don’t break down. They are incredibly persistent. That’s because they are made up of chains of carbon atoms bonded to fluorine atoms. And those carbon-fluorine bonds are super strong and super stable. That’s what makes them useful. That’s why PFAS chemicals have become ubiquitous.

They repel water. They repel grease. They repel all sorts of things.

They make eggs slide off your nonstick cookware. They help rain jackets and school uniforms and mascara to be waterproof. They’re in carpets to make them stain-proof. They can withstand high temperatures, so they’re in firefighting foams to put out fires. They’re in dental floss, food packaging, brake fluid, you name it. They really are everywhere. And it would be, frankly, hard to live in modern-day America and not come across things every day with PFAS in them.

When did we start to realize they might not be so good for us?

For decades, most of what was known about PFAS was kept secret by the companies that made them. That included evidence of risks to human health. But it’s really been in the last decade that the scientific research has piled up, showing that certain PFAS compounds can be toxic and thus that possibly all of them may be.

PFAS aren’t dangerous in the way a hot stove is. There isn’t that immediate evidence of acute harm. The harmful effects take time to show up. They can take years or even decades to manifest. We’re in a situation now where PFAS have become ubiquitous, but we don’t know all of the negative consequences of that. And the data that we have so far is not reassuring.

Has that lack of information become a shield for the industry?

Absolutely. Part of the issue here is that our environmental laws are based on the presumption of innocence. The burden of proof is not generally on industry to prove that chemicals are safe. I heard David Michaels, the former head of OSHA, talk about this concept as the body-in-the-morgue method: By the time you can show a chemical is dangerous, that it’s killing people, it’s too late.

We talked about how the Biden administration issued the first national PFAS drinking water standards last week. How are Biden’s new water regulations supposed to work exactly?

They require local utilities to begin testing drinking water for a handful of the worst of the worst PFAS compounds over the next few years. And if they find those compounds are present, they will have to treat that contaminated water.

And will treating the water get rid of the PFAS, because isn’t it persistent?

There are various ways to filter out the PFAS. It gets harder when you’re talking about destroying the PFAs entirely. But at least there are ways to get it out of the water. This new rule by the EPA, it’s a big deal. The head of the EPA, Michael Regan, has said these rules would prevent thousands of deaths and reduce tens of thousands of serious PFAS-related illnesses.

I’m struck by the fact that the EPA is only choosing to have this drinking water requirement for six chemicals when there are more than 10,000 PFAS chemicals that we know about. Is the idea to have just an indicator? Like, we only need to test for these six because it’ll tell us what we need to know. Or is the agency going to miss something by only looking for a few chemicals at a time?

These tests are definitely going to miss a lot of PFAS. Part of the problem is we may just not have the science to back up a regulation, because data takes a long time to collect on harm. There are definitely people that will say that these rules don’t go far enough. If there are 10,000 or 15,000 types of PFAS chemicals out there, and these new water rules are aimed at regulating six of them, that’s a laughable drop in the bucket, right? There are plenty of people pushing the EPA to ban PFAS outright so we don’t keep contributing to this existing and already enormous environmental load. But I’m not sure anyone is optimistic about that happening anytime in the U.S.

I wonder whether creating drinking water standards is a way to get around chemical companies slow walking their own accountability here.

Kyla Bennett, who used to work at the EPA, thinks of it as the agency doing one thing with the right hand and another with the left hand. She finds these new water regulations really hard to reconcile. The water rules say, for example, there is absolutely no safe level of consumption of PFOA, and yet when it comes to the presence of that same chemical in fluorinated plastic, the EPA hasn’t taken as drastic of an action as it could. So, it’s very frustrating for people like Kyla who watched this happen and say, ‘Great. We’re thrilled about the water regulations, but can you please act harder and faster on other routes of PFAS exposure so we don’t even have them in our water to begin with?’

Get more news from Mary Harris every weekday.

Do you ever imagine a world without PFAS and what it would look like?

The world would definitely be a different place without PFAS. Obviously, there are plenty of scientists and researchers that say it would be a better place. As I began poking around, I came across an article, published in a scientific journal, and this single sentence jumped out at me. It said, ‘PFAS in consumer products often are relatively easy to replace.’ I said, ‘Wait, what?! Alternatives to PFAS exist? I had no idea.’ Alternatives to PFAS exist; it’s just that companies aren’t using them. So we have an already enormous PFAS problem, and companies are just continuing to voluntarily add to it.

It is impossible to undo the decades of human environmental exposure to PFAS, but it’s also not too late to stop making the problem worse. One way to do that is to categorize how essential various PFAS uses are and to identify alternatives. That’s actually what researchers have begun to do. One recent study, for example, looked at the use of PFAS in the production of semiconductors, and they decided that that was currently essential given the absence of suitable alternatives. But then you talk about the use of PFAS in bicycle lubricants or household cleaning products or waterproof mascara. Is that essential? No, because nonfluorinated alternatives exist, and they’re just as effective.

Given their ubiquity, our exposure to PFAS today is inevitable. That doesn’t have to be true going forward.

You’ve changed some things in your own life as a result of your reporting on these chemicals, right?

Yeah. For example, I use shampoo bars now, instead of a bottle of shampoo. First of all, there’s an environmental benefit. It’s a lower footprint because it doesn’t have the water and the packaging, but more importantly, the packaging: It’s really hard to know if a package of shampoo is going to be made of fluorinated plastic or not. And so if I use a bar of shampoo, I just don’t have to worry about it as much.

I could also see how it would make you mad that you have to be your own personal EPA.

There definitely is a wide misconception that just because things are legal it means they’re safe. And that’s definitely not true. It does really put a lot of the burden of protecting ourselves on us as opposed to government authorities or regulatory agencies to protect us.


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