Making Forever Chemicals Go Away
Manmade Compounds Pose Lasting Threat to Our Health
by Sheryl DeVore
Decades ago, environmental groups urged the banning of what are known as forever chemicals, which have been linked to cancer, compromised immune systems and hormonal imbalances, among other health issues. Today, although some of these man-made per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are being phased out, there’s still much to worry about.
“These chemicals are everywhere–in products, in our homes, in our drinking water. They’re even coming down in rain,” says Mike Schade, director of the Mind the Store program of Toxic-Free Future (ToxicFreeFuture.org), a national nonprofit based in Seattle. “This is a growing public health crisis.”
A recent Environmental Working Group (ewg.org) report says that 200 million Americans are likely drinking water contaminated with PFAS, and that these chemicals are even more toxic than once thought. In June, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) established new health advisories for these chemicals, warning about the toxicity of even lower amounts in water. The EPA is offering $1 billion in grants initially and $5 billion over time to help remove them from drinking water. Recent research has also shown PFAS detected in sludge used as fertilizer in home gardens. “We need action at all levels of government,” Schade says. “We need states to step up. We need Congress to step up. We need big companies to step up and consumers to take action.”
Origin of PFAS
Since the late 1940s, forever chemicals have been manufactured for use in products such as nonstick cookware; waterproof, water-resistant and stain-resistant textiles; dental floss; and food packaging, such as microwave popcorn bags and fast-food containers. Firefighters also use foam that contains the chemicals. “Production and disposal of these chemicals is leading to the contamination of drinking water supplies and surface water bodies all across the country,” Schade says. “It’s a huge issue, especially in the Great Lakes.”
“We’re talking about more than 9,000 chemicals,” says Susie Dai, Ph.D., a leading PFAS researcher and an associate professor of plant pathology and microbiology at Texas A&M University. “Because they contain one of the strongest chemical bonds, the carbon-fluorine bond, they are very stable. That makes it difficult for the chemicals to break down and easy for them to accumulate in the environment.”
Several years ago, chemical companies began manufacturing what they deem are less-toxic PFAS. They’re known as either short-chain or alternative PFAS, and include chemicals named GenX and PFBS. “The more that scientists study this very large class of chemicals, the more that scientists find the replacement chemicals are likely just as toxic,” Schade says. The EPA June health advisories include these two new PFAS.
Meanwhile, as public concern grows, 11 states have banned PFAS in food packaging, and Congress is considering a similar ban, says Schade. Whole Foods Market has stopped using the chemicals in food packaging, and Keen, an outdoor shoe brand, has phased out use of PFAS in their products.
In February, Toxic-Free Future sent rain jackets, hiking pants, cloth napkins, bedding and other products marked as stain- or water-resistant to independent labs for analysis. “Seventy-two percent of them contained forever chemicals,” Schade says. Some of these products are manufactured by recreational equipment company REI, which Toxic-Free is urging consumers to write to, asking it to end the practice.
In July, Columbia Sportswear received petitions with 48,000 signatures from the Natural Resources Defense Council and other environmental organizations urging the company to eliminate PFAS from its products. Although it has begun taking steps, Columbia has yet to set a timeline or define PFAS sustainability standards.
“We can minimize the threat of PFAS contamination by turning off the tap on their use,” says Paloma Paez-Coombe, an associate of Environment Illinois, which participated in the petition drive. “One of the best ways we can do that is by getting a major brand like Columbia Sportswear to publicly lead the way.”
These actions, however, won’t fix the problem of PFAS already in drinking water. Dai and other researchers have created a new bioremediation technology using plant-based material and fungi that could clean places where forever chemicals have been disposed. She hopes a similar concept can be applied to PFAS-contaminated drinking water.
Northwestern University researchers published a paper in August in Science showing PFAS can be destroyed using somewhat harmless chemicals called sodium hydroxide, which is the lye used to make soap, and dimethyl sulfoxide, a medicine for bladder issues. Dai says that before these new approaches, the only way to break down PFAS was to expose them to high temperatures in an incinerator, but that is costly and still introduces harmful chemicals into the environment.
Meanwhile, the Delaware-based chemical company Chemours, a spinoff of Dupont that manufactures PFAS, has filed a lawsuit against the EPA saying the agency’s most recent health advisory regarding PFAS is based on flawed science. Chemours is the same company that has been ordered to pay a $12 million fine to the state of North Carolina after contaminating waterways with PFAS.
Schade surmises, “This is an issue that should be of concern to every American, especially when these chemicals are linked to health problems that are on the rise in our communities.”
Sheryl DeVore has written six books on science, health and nature, as well as health and environmental stories for national and regional publications. Read more at SherylDeVore.wordpress.com.
Third-Party Certifiers and Websites
- Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) (usgbc.org) is the most widely used green building rating system in the world.
- Sustainable Furnishings Council
(SustainableFurnishings.org) champions wood from sustainable forests and elimination of toxins in furniture; links to eco-responsible vendors.
- Energy Star (EnergyStar.gov) certifies products and offers guidance for efficient home solutions by U.S. regions and climates.
- The Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America (AsthmaAndAllergyFriendly.com) certifies asthma- and allergy-friendly options for insulation, air filters, flooring and paint.
- HomeFree (HomeFree.HealthyBuilding.net) showcases less toxic options for flooring, paint, drywall, countertops, cabinetry, doors, insulation, sealants and more.
- WaterSense (epa.gov/watersense) offers guidance by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for water conservation and water-saving products.
- Underwriters Laboratory (ul.com) certifies safe and environmentally sound solutions in renewable energy, building materials, consumer electronics and home goods.
- International Living Future Institute (Living-Future.org) accredits industry pros and certifies buildings that positively impact human and natural health.