What is Forever Chemicals? Researchers have identified over 700 PFAS-contaminated sites across the United States. The toxic synthetic chemicals that are extremely hard to get rid of are exposing millions to devastating health consequences.
According to recent studies, the chemicals seep through the ground into water reservoirs, which supply water to people and farms. Debuting soon after the World War II chemical boom, PFAS have slowly made their way into water systems around the country. They flow through reservoirs and faucets and bleed into aquifers and irrigation systems that sustain crops and livestock that end up on our plates.
No Known Way to Destroy Them
Researchers found a high concentration of PFAS in a farm that sits some less than 10 miles away from the Peterson Air Force Base, just outside of Colorado Springs, where fire foam was used for decades in firefighter training. The foam contained PFAS, short for perfluoroalkyl, and polyfluoroalkyl substances.
PFAS are a class of about 5,000 fluorinated compounds whose nickname as “forever chemicals” comes because they don’t naturally break down, and there is no known way to destroy them. The ubiquitous compounds are used to make products water- and stain-resistant. They are commonly found in Teflon, waterproof rain gear, dental floss, eyeliner, food packaging, carpeting, firefighting foam, and a wide range of textiles.
The chemicals are hazardous because they are water-soluble and efficiently move through the environment. Landfills, military bases, and industrial sites frequently contaminate soil from which the chemicals move into groundwater and aquifers, then pollute nearby wells or municipal drinking sources. David Andrews, a senior scientist for the Environmental Working Group, says:
“It’s nearly impossible to escape contamination […] when they’re released into the world there’s no standard environmental process that breaks them down – they don’t break apart in sunlight or heat. They mostly disperse, and they can build up in concentration, especially in water supplies.”
Probable Link to Six Diseases
People who get exposed to enough PFAS can face devastating and diverse health consequences. The chemicals are linked to various cancers, thyroid disorders, kidney disease, autoimmune disruptions, liver disease, high cholesterol, and developmental problems in fetuses, Parkinson’s disease, bone disease, and more. Though some chemical companies deny that PFAS are responsible for health problems, a wave of independent, academic, and government research in recent years contradicts that claim.
In a recent epidemiological study, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 2012 found a probable link to six diseases afflicting West Virginia residents exposed to high levels of PFAS in their drinking water. The culprit was a nearby DuPont chemical plant. Sonya Lunder of the Sierra Club said:
“It’s clear that PFAS are “as a class harmful to so many parts of the body […] the chemicals are uniquely problematic because they don’t break down in any meaningful way and take up a long residence in the human body […] and the scope of the damages it causes is pretty unusual and unprecedented.”
“Forever Chemicals” PFAS in Food Packaging
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently released results from market basket surveys in which common supermarket foods were sampled to test for possible contaminants. Elevated levels of PFAS were reported in more than a dozen foods, including fish, seafood, turkey, and even chocolate cake, which contained PFAS at 250 times the federal guideline for drinking water.
Months later, the FDA revised the survey results and reported lower levels of PFAS in meats and fish. The chocolate cake had produced a false-positive result, it said. By then, cities and states had begun to take action. Maine started screening bio-solids for PFAS and, along with Washington State, passed a bill to phase out PFAS in food packaging. The cities of San Francisco and Berkeley, California, banned PFAS in single-use containers.
Ability to Alter Our Metabolisms
Once inside the body, PFAS can bind to specific protein molecules and interrupt hormone signals. Because they are structurally similar, PFAS can also mimic fatty acids. But when they try to fit into cell receptors meant for fatty acids, they’re not a perfect fit. This can lead to cell damage. DeWitt, whose research focuses on the effects of PFAS on the immune system, says:
“It can be especially important when these signals are turned on or off during child development […] fatty acids are critical sources of energy. So, when PFAS bind to proteins that manage fatty acids, we think they can alter our metabolisms. Scientists are only beginning to understand the biological mechanisms of PFAS in humans.”