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Toxic ‘forever chemicals’ pollute humans and animals worldwide

Isabella Zarzar
PFAS contamination is widespread. Over 200 million Americans could have drinking water polluted by PFAS, according to the Environmental Working Group.

Perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl (PFAS) substances are everywhere. 

They could be in your shampoo bottle, dental floss, sandwich wrapper, and thousands of other everyday products. And they are probably inside of you.

PFAS are a group of toxic manufactured chemicals that are used to make a variety of products. They are also virtually indestructible, so many scientists call them “forever chemicals.” They pollute water and don’t break down, often contaminating the environment and humans for decades.

Since PFAS were introduced in the 1940s, they have been used worldwide in industry and consumer products. When products like this end up in landfills, these pollutants seep into our soil, air, and drinking water. This is how PFAS end up in food, wildlife, and even our bloodstream.

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The Environmental Working Group (EWG) estimates that more than 40,000 industrial polluters could discharge PFAS in the United States. This includes manufacturing facilities, municipal landfills and wastewater treatment plants, airports, and sites where PFAS-containing firefighting foam has been used. 

In humans, PFAS can cause various health harms: scientists have linked very low doses of PFAS to suppression of the immune system, including reduced vaccine efficacy, a higher risk of certain types of cancer, and other health problems.

Today, the chemicals continue to contaminate the environment across the globe, and almost 100% of all Americans, including newborn babies, have PFAS in their blood.

Hope Grosse, co-founder of the Buxmont Coalition for Safer Water, experienced the detrimental impact of PFAS on her community firsthand.

Growing up, Grosse lived across the street from a Superfund site and 25 feet from a firefighting training center. During a regular training activity, the shell of a plane cockpit was dosed with benzenes and lit on fire. That fire was then put out with PFAS. 

“My whole life, my siblings, kids in the neighborhood, and I would climb a fence and play in the cockpit of this plane when it wasn’t being lit on fire,” Grosse said. “And when it was being lit on fire, we would stand at the fence and think it was some exciting thing.”

Next to the training center was a public park where children often played sports such as baseball and football, within the vicinity of the chemicals.

“As an adult, It’s pretty devastating to look back and think about what was done to us as kids.”

Additionally, according to Grosse, each street or neighborhood in the community was fed by different wells. When the water system switched from servicing private wells to public water instead, the community believed it to be cleaner. However, that was not the case.

“Little did we know that the well we drank out of had extremely high levels of chemicals. I think it was over 4,000 parts per trillion (ppt) of PFAS,” Grosse said.

The Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) current limit for certain PFAS such as perfluorooctane sulfonic acid (PFOS) is 0.02 ppt, and it is 0.004 ppt for perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA). The previous guideline, set in 2016, set a limit of 70 ppt for both PFOS and PFOA in drinking water. The EPA altered it after learning of an expanding body of research that reveals how toxic the compounds are.

Due to PFAS contamination, Grosse was diagnosed with cancer at age 25. Her father had died of cancer three months before her diagnosis. Her neighbor’s father died near that time as well.

“Our communities were devastated. There were probably about over 100,000 people in our local area affected by the PFAS in our water,” Grosse said.

A 2020 EWG study found that over 200 million Americans could have PFAS-contaminated drinking water.

The EPA is soon expected to propose restrictions on harmful PFAS in drinking water after finding they are dangerous even in amounts so small they are undetectable. However, experts say removing the “forever chemicals” will cost billions, falling the hardest on small communities with few resources.

In the U.S., only local utilities and state regulators have enforced changes so far, not the federal government.

“If there are no laws in place, no one has to prevent PFAS from being in the environment,” Grosse said. “Another issue is that there are over 10,000 PFAS we know. So the real problem is in their production and formulation and the fact that these chemicals are being put on the market without doing any public health trials.”

According to Keith Vorst, an associate professor at Iowa State University who studies the levels of PFAS in products, the reality is that we will never get rid of PFAS. 

“It is not possible ever. These are forever chemicals, and the entire globe is polluted, so we find them in polar bears and trees in forests around the globe. The best we can do is limit exposure at this point and try to clean up highly contaminated areas or reservoirs where PFAS would be found,” Vorst said.

PFAS are highly pervasive in animals as well as humans. Over 330 species of wildlife across the globe are contaminated with PFAS, according to a new EWG report that identified traces of the synthetic chemicals in animals on every continent except Antarctica.

We are past the tipping point on preventing environmental contamination.

— Keith Vorst

The report also confirmed that PFAS are found wherever they’re tested for. Regardless of location or species, nearly every time that testing is done, scientists find contamination from these toxic chemicals. Wildlife in many other places worldwide is likely contaminated, given the extent of PFAS pollution.

PFAS are also found in San Francisco Bay wildlife, including fish, bird eggs, and harbor seals. Concentrations of PFOS in Bay harbor seals and bird eggs in 2004 and 2006 were some of the highest detected globally.

“We are past the tipping point on preventing environmental contamination,” Vorst said. “Now we need to look at the long-term impact on the environment and animals from exposure and where the highest levels of contamination are and make a strategy to clean up these areas.”

Another startling reality is that it is practically impossible for consumers to avoid toxic PFAS in their everyday lives.

recent study showed that many children’s products, including those marketed as “green” or “non-toxic,” contain harmful PFAS chemicals not listed on the label. 

“I’ve heard of PFAS before, but I never thought they would be found in so many places,” said Carlmont junior Natalie Su.

PFAS are called forever chemicals for a good reason. According to Grosse, they will continue contaminating our products and the environment for a long time. 

“PFAS will probably always exist. But we still need to take new actions to limit them and prevent them from hurting our communities,” Grosse said.

This story was originally published on Scot Scoop News on March 13, 2023.