This week, the federal Environmental Protection Agency announced that it will study and regulate PFAS, a group of chemicals associated with a variety of health issues, ranging from cancer to immune system problems.
PFAS exists in products as diverse as homewares, food storage, and firefighting foams, according to the PFAS Exchange.
Here’s what families should know about these chemicals and the regulation plan:
What Are PFAS?
PFAS stands for perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, and a whole bunch of different specific chemicals falls under this category. They’re used in everything from nonstick cookware and carpets to industrial processes in construction and the military, according to the National Institute of Health.
Part of the reason why they’re so widespread is that they’re so useful, says Courtney Carignan, an environmental epidemiologist at Michigan State University. One end of the molecule is attracted to water, she says, while the other end repels water — making them useful for things like stain resistance. The FDA notes that they can also be resistant to heat and oil and that they’ve been around since the 1940s.
In addition to consumer products, PFAS are showing up in drinking water around the country, notes the PFAS Exchange (which Carignan helped create). They estimate that millions of Americans are exposed to PFAS chemicals via their drinking water.
What Are the Health Risks?
Scientific research has connected PFAS with numerous health issues, including cancer, fertility issues, developmental issues in children, and hormonal issues, according to the EPA. Some studies have even linked the chemicals to male fertility issues such as semen quality and testosterone levels.
Recently, PFAS have also come under scrutiny for their immune system effects. The CDC reports that some scientists are concerned that exposure to PFAS can weaken the body’s antibody response to vaccines, including in children.
But part of the issue is that we just don’t know exactly what the health effects are of all these different chemicals. Of the thousands of PFAS, “only a very small number has actually been studied intensively for health effects,” Carignan told Fatherly. Part of the EPA’s new plan is to conduct research on the toxicity of many of these chemicals.
The other issue is that PFAS are what are known as “forever chemicals,” or chemicals that can stick around for a long time. The half-lives — the time for 50% of the chemical to leave your body after exposure — vary between different PFAS as well. While some of them might have a half-life of a few days, others might have half-lives somewhere between a few years and a few decades, according to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), a division of the federal Health and Human Services Department.
Most people in the US have some detectable levels of PFAS in their bodies, ATSDR notes. And in addition to people, PFAS levels have accumulated in nature, and can now show up in wildlife like fish, deer, and turtles.
What’s Happening Now?
The EPA’s new plan revolves around three ideas, which they’ve dubbed “research, restrict, remediate.” The research part of the plan includes some toxicity studies, as well as research on PFAS in nature and PFAS management and clean-up. The restriction part of the plan would involve trying to reduce some PFAS exposures, and remediation would focus on removing existing PFAS from the environment.
The agency also plans to test drinking water for PFAS across the country, determine safe levels of some PFAS in water, and set drinking water standards for some PFAS. Currently, they note, there are no drinking water regulations for PFAS. In addition, they will compel companies to test and publish the level of PFAS in some consumer products, reports The New York Times.
According to the Times, a trade group for the chemical industry, the American Chemistry Council, remarked that some PFAS may not have alternatives. The paper reports that a spokesperson for the group said, via a statement: “The American Chemistry Council supports the strong, science-based regulation of chemicals, including PFAS substances. But all PFAS are not the same, and they should not all be regulated the same way.”
In addition, The Intercept reports that while some environmentalists are pleased that EPA has started working more on PFAS, others are frustrated with what they see as incremental progress.
What Can Parents Do in the Meantime?
This new EPA action will hopefully start to make some progress on PFAS, but it could take a while. In the meantime, families have a few options to try and limit exposure to the chemicals.
One of the most important things to do is make sure your water has been tested — while some states are testing for PFAS, others may not be testing quite as much, Carignan says. People with private wells might also consider getting their water tested for a wide variety of PFAS, she adds. The PFAS Exchange has published a map of known contamination sites.
If the chemicals are present in your drinking water, the ATSDR recommends using other sources of water for drinking and “any other activity when you might swallow water.” They also note that you should check with your local health departments for advisories on water, as well as any advisories on eating wild animals such as fish. The PFAS Exchange also has some suggestions on filtering water.
In addition, if you have been exposed to PFAS, you might consider getting your blood tested, Carignan says. If you’re interested in getting some advice on understanding what those test results mean, she recommends reaching out to a Pediatric Environmental Health Specialty Unit near you. Some communities also make community-wide testing available after a known exposure.
The PFAS Exchange has a list of a few other ways to reduce PFAS exposure, such as avoiding some stain-resistant products and cookware. But Carignan notes that it can be hard to avoid exposure entirely because these chemicals are so ubiquitous, and not always labeled.
“It is difficult to completely avoid PFAS because they are in so many products,” Carignan says.
Overall, and unfortunately, one of the most consistent threads with PFAS is uncertainty — we’re not entirely sure where they are, how they affect us, or what to do about it.
Part of the reason for this is because environmental toxicology is notoriously difficult to study. And many of these new EPA proposals are still in the development stage, with potential action to come at some point in the future. But hopefully, by taking a new look at these chemicals, we’ll learn more and be able to make informed decisions to keep people and children safe.