The EPA Finally Plans to Regulate Toxic, Widespread 'Forever Chemicals'

dirty chemicals on water

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Key Takeaways

  • PFAS, also known as “forever chemicals,” are human-made compounds that persist in the environment and human body.
  • Decades of research have linked PFAS to health issues like cancers, liver and thyroid diseases, prenatal and development issues, and immunosuppression.
  • In October, the EPA released a plan to limit PFAS in drinking water—the first major step by a federal regulatory body to clean drinking water systems and hold manufacturers accountable.

Among the most sinister and widespread threats to public health in the United States is a class of toxic chemicals called polyfluoroalkyl and perfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS.

This ever-expanding group of more than 4,700 chemicals is also known as “forever chemicals” because of their tendency to remain in the human body and environment indefinitely.

Most Americans have been exposed to PFAS, especially perfluorooctane sulfonic acid (PFOS) and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA). They’re used in day-to-day products like nonstick pans, fast food wrappers, and cosmetics. The manufacturing process can leach PFAS into soil and waterways, contaminating wildlife and drinking water.

When these chemicals enter one’s bloodstream, they can circulate and reach major organs, leading to adverse health effects such as cancer, liver and thyroid diseases, as well as developmental deficiencies in babies.

In October, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced a new road map for regulating these toxic chemicals, the first federal attempt to reduce PFAS through enforceable limits.

EPA administrator Michael Regan said the agency will support research on the compounds, restrict contamination, and invest in clean-up efforts in highly polluted areas. Chemical manufacturers will be required to test and publicly report how much PFAS they use in products. The agency will also impose limits on the usage and discharge of some of the harmful PFAS into drinking water and soil. The EPA expects to send out the first round of mandatory test orders by the end of 2021.

The EPA will also consider designating certain PFAS as hazardous substances and require polluters to pay for clean-up efforts under the Superfund law.

But some environmental and health advocates say the EPA’s plan is too little, too late. The Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility criticized the roadmap in a statement, saying it merely put forth “promises of planning to plan” and relied on “voluntary stewardship programs that have consistently failed the American public.”

“I have been working on PFAS-related issues now for over 20 years and have seen numerous statements by EPA that they would be moving forward to take action on PFAS. And unfortunately, a lot of that hasn’t happened,” Robert Bilott, JD, an environmental attorney and advocate for people effected by PFAS, told Verywell.

“We’ve got worldwide contamination of this man-made toxin in our water, in our soil, in our blood, in animals—in virtually every living creature on the planet,” he added. “And we’re still waiting to get things done at the federal level to protect people.”

Recognizing the Dangers of Forever Chemicals

Since the 1940s, major manufacturers like DuPont and 3M have used PFAS for their resistance to liquids, heat, grease, and staining. These properties are helpful for products such as food wrappers, raincoats, pizza boxes, fire retardants, carpets, waterproof mascara, and more.

PFAS can enter water and airways when manufacturers unsafely dispose of them at industrial sites. Firefighting foams used at airports and military bases can also pollute the groundwater, affecting surrounding communities.

In 2015, the EPA banned the production of PFOA and PFOS—two of the most harmful PFAS. Still, more than 200 million Americans receive tap water containing PFOA and/or PFOS.

The prevalence and severity of PFAS exposure came to the attention of the EPA largely thanks to Bilott’s work. In 1998, a farmer named Wilbur Tennant living near Parkersburg, West Virginia, asked Bilott to help hold the DuPont chemical company responsible for death and illness in his cattle herd, which he said was related to waste dumping from a nearby factory. His story is documented in the movie "Dark Waters" and Bilott's book "Exposure: Poisoned Water, Corporate Greed, and One Lawyer's Twenty-Year Battle against DuPont."

Bilott parsed through documents from DuPont showing the company knew PFAS had similarly disturbing effects on humans. Exposed workers developed cancer and women gave birth to children with facial deformities. In 1962, when DuPont researchers seeking to understand the effects of PFAS asked volunteers to smoke cigarettes laced with the chemicals, nine out of 10 people experienced flu-like symptoms, according to an investigation by the Intercept.

Over the following decades, Bilott and others sued DuPont and 3M for contaminating American communities with toxic substances. At the request of EPA, an independent panel verified the harmful effects of PFOA through dozens of peer-reviewed studies. Today, only five states have enforceable water limits for the compound.

“Even with all that data finally out, we're still waiting for regulations and for final activity at the federal level, just on that one chemical,” Bilott said.

Now hundreds of independent investigations link PFAS to reduced kidney function, thyroid disruption, various cancers including in the prostate and liver, adverse pregnancy outcomes, elevated cholesterol levels, and more.

The compounds can also decrease immune response to vaccines and infectious disease resistance—an outcome that may make an individual more susceptible to COVID-19, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Studies indicate that PFAS is linked adverse pregnancy outcomes like lower birth weights and higher odds of preterm birth. Chemicals circulating in the mother’s blood can be passed to the child through breastfeeding as well, increasing the risk of cognitive developmental problems.

Still, experts say the benefits of breastfeeding infants outweigh the possible risk of PFAS exposure.

Due to their chemical structure, these compounds have a long half-life, meaning the compounds can take hundreds or thousands of years to decompose. Over years of repeated exposure, they can accumulate in the body and potentially damage organs.

“The principle in toxicology is that if you can get the foreign chemical from your body out, the fewer chances you have for toxicity. If you have a chemical that stays there for seven years, you can speculate that you’re going to have some damage,” Vasilis Vasiliou, PhD, chair of the department of environmental health sciences at Yale School of Public Health, told Verywell.

Researchers have tested several solutions, including putting patients on dialysis and using cholestyramine, but none has proven largely effective or been widely adopted.

Exposure to PFAS doesn’t inevitably lead to adverse health outcomes, and it’s difficult for researchers to pin down the exact ways in which PFAS chemicals impair human health. As is true when studying most toxicants, researchers can’t simply expose subjects to PFAS in a clinical trial and observe the effects.

The chemicals can interact with other nutritional or behavioral inputs, which have a “synergistic or additive effect,” Vasiliou said. For instance, liver disease can arise from both PFAS exposure and other factors like excessive alcohol consumption. 

Several federal agencies are studying how PFAS affects the health of workers at higher risk of exposure, such as firefighters and chemical manufacturing workers. The Defense Department said that by 2023, it would finish initial assessments of possible PFAS contamination stemming from nearly 700 of its installations.

“Unfortunately, we’re probably going to keep identifying groups that have been unaware of these exposures that need to be studied,” Bilott said.

A 'Whack-A-Mole Game'

With thousands of PFAS to account for, environmental and health advocates say it would take decades for regulators to assess each individual chemical. Bilott said that by the time researchers can prove that one chemical is harmful, manufacturers may have developed a chemically similar substitute.

“This becomes essentially like a whack-a-mole game,” Bilott said. “In other words, we have to start that whole process all over again, and then wait another 20 years and let people get sick and see how many people get cancer and die in the meantime.”

For instance, a relatively new PFAS, called GenX, was meant to be a safer alternative to chemicals in products like Teflon. But recent studies indicate the short-chain compounds are even more harmful, and reports filed by DuPont itself indicate Gen-X is carcinogenic in lab animals.

“It takes years of scientific research and advocacy to phase out or regulate just one chemical. And most likely it will be replaced with another chemical that’s very similar in function structure, and unfortunately toxicity,” Arlene Blum, PhD, executive director at the Green Science Policy Institute, told Verywell.

What’s more, there’s dispute over how to define this class. At a basic level, PFAS are chemical compounds made of a chain of carbon and fluorine atoms. The EPA’s definition of the chemical makeup for PFAS is narrower than that used by the International Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. This means the agency could miss new coolant chemicals that are toxic and persist in water.

Blum’s organization advocates phasing out toxic chemicals by regulating whole classes and insisting that manufacturers must stop pumping these compounds into the environment, as opposed to focusing solely on clean-up efforts.

The EPA roadmap was announced near North Carolina’s Cape Fear River, a watershed servicing more than 1.5 million people. The area has suffered decades of GenX and other PFAS pollution from a DuPont factory later owned by its spin-off, Chemours.

Even as water utilities attempt to filter the region’s drinking water, the chemicals are nearly impossible to scrub from the environment, Blum said. Chemicals spewed from smokestacks can stay airborne or settle in trees, washing into the water and contaminating animals when it rains.

“Once they’re out in the world, it’s really expensive just to give people clean drinking water, but you can never really clean up the environment. Rivers, lakes, oceans, and soil get contaminated,” Blum said. “It’s important to turn off the tap and stop the unessential use in products.”

The EPA has allowed these forever chemicals to accumulate for decades without imposing stringent regulations. In 2016, the agency set a non-enforceable health advisory of 70 parts per trillion for PFOS and PFOA in drinking water. But the agency recently admitted that the threshold is far too high to prevent negative health effects, and the limit needs to be much lower.

To date, the EPA has not set a legal limit for PFAS in drinking water after missing a self-assigned deadline in 2019.

Can You Avoid PFAS Exposure?

Avoiding PFAS entirely is nearly impossible at this point. Since the class isn’t regulated, manufacturers aren’t required to report the chemicals on ingredient lists or product labels. But some organizations have created resources to help consumers make safe decisions.

Here are some steps you can take to reduce your exposure:

  • Avoid stain-resistant treatments in carpeting and furniture.
  • Be cautious of greasy packaged food, like microwave popcorn and fast food, as the wrappers often contain PFAS. Some companies have committed to reducing or stopping PFAS use.
  • Avoid Teflon and other non-stick cookware. If you continue to use it, avoid letting it heat to more than 450 degrees and don’t use non-stick cookware in hot ovens or grills.
  • Look for public health advisories in your city and county. In areas with high environmental contamination to the chemicals, authorities may advise residents to avoid eating fish sourced from local lakes or warn about high PFAS levels in water.
  • Keep an eye out for words containing “fluoro” and “perfluoro” on personal care products, like cosmetics, dental floss, and nail polish.
  • Consult Green Science Policy Institute’s guide for products that are declared PFAS-free.

Unlike other products and substances, many people can’t avoid drinking tap water. Minimizing the pollution of drinking water before it reaches households, Vasiliou said, is important to limiting PFAS exposure.

Activated charcoal can filter out some of the largest and most widespread chemicals in this class, such as PFOA and PFOS. But smaller PFAS chemicals can easily slip through such filters.

A new digital tool from the Environmental Working Group lets users learn whether water from local utilities is contaminated with PFAS and other toxic chemicals.

Reducing PFAS exposure requires actions like holding manufacturers accountable and imposing strict nationwide limits on contaminants in drinking water, products, and the environment, Blum added.

“[The EPA] just hasn’t gotten that far—this is the beginning. There’s a lot more to be done,” Blum said.

Ultimately, the onus is on U.S. manufacturers to minimize PFAS risk, Bilott said.

“These are man-made chemicals. They don’t exist in nature,” he said. “If we find them in your water, soil, air, animals, in you, there are fingerprints back to a very small group of companies that made these and profited enormously for decades—billions and billions of dollars—over making and pumping these toxins out into our world. They should be responsible for the costs involved in responding to this.”

What This Means For You

Although the EPA plans to set legal limits for safe levels of PFAS in drinking water, environmental activists and researchers say the agency must adopt even stricter and broader regulations to adequately protect Americans from the deleterious effects of PFAS exposure.

13 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Claire Bugos
Claire Bugos is a health and science reporter and writer and a 2020 National Association of Science Writers travel fellow.