Are Forever Chemicals Truly Forever?
By Ellie Gabel
“Forever chemicals” has become a buzzword in recent years as studies show the adverse health effects of per- and polyfluorinated alkyl substances (PFAS). These toxins are everywhere, from tap water and everyday household objects to the air we breathe.
So far, PFAS have proven themselves indestructible, although researchers are busy looking for ways to eliminate them. What did recent findings show about PFAS contamination in tap water? Here’s a closer look at these complex compounds.
New Study Depicts PFAS Problem Across America
According to a 2023 U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) study, 45% of America’s tap water contains PFAS. The study — a first of its kind — comprised drinking water samples from private and federal-regulated water systems to demonstrate contamination. The USGS intends to use the results to understand community health risks better and develop improved policies and water management.
PFAS are human-made chemicals found in nonstick cookware, stain-resistant sealants, water-resistant items, insulation, food packaging, cleaning supplies and personal care products. Even most toilet papers contain 6:2 fluorotelomer phosphate diester — a harmful PFAS to people and the environment.
The USGS study showed how widespread PFAS travels throughout drinking water systems. Of the 716 locations surveyed, scientists estimate that forever chemicals are prevalent in 75% of urban tap water and only 25% in rural areas. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has issued a health advisory of 70 parts per trillion, but there’s currently no consequences in place for surpassing that level.
Is There a Way to Remove Forever Chemicals?
The main issue regarding PFAS is they don’t break down easily, lasting thousands of years in the environment and people’s bodies. Their persistence has stumped scientists, who are steadfast in finding a solution quickly.
Water treatment methods — reverse osmosis, ion exchange resins and activated carbon — can effectively pull many PFAS variants out of water. The question is what to do with the compounds afterward. PFAS doesn’t just disappear — the filters get washed or tossed, allowing the toxins to leach the environment and wreak havoc again.
However, there may be a glimmer of hope. Researchers from Northwest University have eradicated two PFAS classes to trace amounts using low temperatures and cost-effective chemical substances. Their success comes after New York state attempted to eliminate PFAS at extremely high temperatures, instead emitting the compounds into the atmosphere through smokestacks.
While experiments suggest progress, the U.S. is far from delivering a viable solution to lessen exposure. Likewise, not every at-home tap water filter is capable of removing PFAS.
In the Cape Fear Region — primarily Wilmington and the Southeastern coast of North Carolina — remnants of Chemours-produced GenX appear even with reverse osmosis systems. Chemours is a subsidiary of DuPont de Nemours.
Health Implications of Forever Chemicals
Forever chemicals became widely used in products in the 1940s, with the introduction of Teflon cookware — a nonstick cookware coating manufactured by DuPont. Two PFAS variants used — polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE) and perfluorooctane sulfonic acid (PFOA) — carry the worst health effects on humans.
Research is in its infancy as experts learn more about forever chemicals. However, scientists have found PFAS builds up mainly in the kidneys, lungs, liver and brain. As a result, they’ve shown adverse outcomes on metabolic, reproductive and endocrine systems and can cause various cancers.
No one realized PFAS toxicity until 20 years after DuPont came out with its line of Teflon products. The health risks became apparent after 1980 when PFAS was detected in DuPont employees. Many grew concerned about congenital disabilities in exposed female workers and the rise of bladder, prostate, liver and kidney cancers.
A prominent lawsuit also uncovered a potential correlation between PFAS and community-wide thyroid conditions, high cholesterol levels, prenatal hypertension, ulcerative colitis and testicular cancer.
How to Reduce PFAS Exposure at Home
While the EPA has come down hard on PFAS regulations, Americans still risk exposure daily. To combat forever chemicals at home, people should follow these five tips.
- Cook Carefully With Nonstick Pans
Nonstick pans are still risky, as heat activates PFOA and PTFE. Therefore, looking for cookware with toxic-free coatings — preferably made with ceramic, steel or cast iron — is crucial to protect oneself.
Reading product labels to see whether something carries a PTFE-free seal is the surest way to know whether a product is potentially harmful.
- Drink Bottled or Filtered Water
The best preventive measure against forever chemicals is drinking bottled or filtered water. Although activated carbon and ion exchange treatments work, the EPA states reverse osmosis systems can remove 90% of PFAS from water.
The most trustworthy filters are certified by third-party agencies, including the National Sanitation Foundation, CSA Group, Water Quality Association and Intertek.
- Clean and Ventilate Your Home
Tap water isn’t the only source of residential PFAS exposure — dust is another culprit. Considering most objects contain forever chemicals, it isn’t too surprising toxins hide in carpets, floors and indoor air.
Avoid breathing in PFAS by keeping a clean house. Regular vacuuming, mopping, dusting and proper ventilation will protect all household members. One should always remember to use environmentally safe cleaning products.
- Avoid PFAS Products
Of course, buying non-PFAS products altogether reduces the amount of forever chemicals brought into the home. Homeowners should think twice about a long list of items before buying, such as paint and varnish, Sticky Notes, food packaging, electronic devices, plastic containers, tape and spill- and stain-resistant furnishings.
Although some products are difficult to avoid, opting for safer, more natural alternatives whenever possible is best.
- Hold Polluters and Policy-Makers Accountable
The only way to see change is to hold manufacturers and politicians accountable. DuPont had to clean up its act following the class-action lawsuit in 2005. Today, the company continues to settle litigation for contaminating communities.
The EPA is also making progress by developing a PFAS database for more informed decision-making regarding regulations and standards for polluters. However, the driving force behind policies around forever chemicals is citizen activism.
Everyone Deserves to Live Safely at Home
Americans shouldn’t have to worry about their tap water being contaminated with harmful forever chemicals. They also shouldn’t risk PFAS health effects from contact with everyday goods. Seeing these synthetic compounds aren’t going anywhere anytime soon, people, polluters and governing bodies must do what they can to limit exposure.
About the Author
Ellie Gabel is the sciences editor at Revolutionized, where she specializes in astronomy, environmental science, and innovative technologies.