You may have a toxic build-up of chemicals in your body. EPA reports that nearly every woman, man, and child is exposed to per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). PFAS are human-made chemicals, including perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS), and other chemicals.
PFAS are a family of chemicals made of a long string of carbon atoms with fluorine. “The fluorine-carbon bond is one of the strongest chemical bonds there is; it takes a lot of energy to break them apart,” explains Anna Hagstrom, Ph.D. “That’s why they’re called ‘forever chemicals.” Hagstrom is a state-level science and technology policy fellow at the Connecticut Academy of Science and Engineering.
“We’re just on the surface of researching PFAS and PFOA,” says Tasha Turner. Turner is an epidemiologist at Children’s Mercy Kansas City and a Ph.D. candidate at Rutgers University. “PFAS chemicals have been around since the 1940s and 1950s… They’re very interesting because a lot of (PFAS chemicals) were used in Teflon, non-stick coating in cookware, they were in fast food wrappers to prevent grease from seeping through, and that’s been the main source of exposure for most people.”
According to the EPA, PFOA and PFOS are the most extensively produced and studied of these chemicals. Both chemicals are very persistent in the environment and the human body. Turner explains humans excrete PFAS very slowly, “And the worst part is that PFOA and PFAS are detected in 99% of the US population’s blood serum. Males have a much slower excretion compared to females. It could be due to breastfeeding in women. We know that they get excreted in breast milk more quickly, and that creates a big issue because we know that babies are taking them in more.”
Scientists are just beginning to document the health effects of PFAS. Turner says, “They’ve been shown to cause issues with the reproductive system and cancer in high concentrations.” The EPA reports PFAS chemicals are also associated with low infant birth weights, effects on the immune system, cancer (for PFOA), and thyroid hormone disruption (for PFOS). There are hundreds of PFOA and PFAS chemicals that are still to be identified, so it’s difficult to pin specific health outcomes to being exposed to these chemicals, says Turner. “So many of these chemicals have not been studied, so we don’t know what the health effects could be.”
Research from the Environmental Working Group (EWG) shows most PFAS contaminated sites are military bases. EWG’s analysis points to seven known PFAS contamination sites in Missouri, including Fort Leonard Wood and Whiteman Air Force Base. EWG also reports contamination found at Fort Leavenworth in Kansas, just across the Missouri River, and at Scott Air Force Base in Illinois (in the greater St. Louis area). In these settings, PFAS contamination is due to firefighting training with fire retardant foam. “The problem with studying firefighting foams is that their chemical makeup is all proprietary information,” Hagstrom says. “A lot of firefighting foams claim not to have PFAS, but we don’t exactly know what the active ingredient is. Are they really fluorine-free? Did they replace the halogen with bromine or chlorine? That wouldn’t be much better (than fluorine).”
Additionally, “(PFAS) were also used heavily in manufacturing processes, which led to contamination in the air, water, and soil,” according to Turner. “Most of the contamination and most of the exposure is from drinking water.” Other potentially dangerous sources of PFAS may be in our food supply. Beef and dairy cattle, and chickens fed food or water contaminated with PFAS can spread the compounds to humans. Fish may also be a significant source of PFAS if they’re swimming in contaminated water surface water.
According to the EPA, PFAS can be found in: (click to see the list)
- Food packaged in PFAS-containing materials, processed with equipment that used PFAS, or grown in PFAS-contaminated soil or water.
- Commercial household products, including stain- and water-repellent fabrics, nonstick products (e.g., Teflon), polishes, waxes, paints, cleaning products, and fire-fighting foams (a major source of groundwater contamination at airports and military bases where firefighting training occurs).
- Workplace, including production facilities or industries (e.g., chrome plating, electronics manufacturing, or oil recovery) that use PFAS.
- Drinking water, typically localized and associated with a specific facility (e.g., manufacturer, landfill, wastewater treatment plant, firefighter training facility).
- Living organisms, including fish, animals, and humans, where PFAS can build up and persist over time.
Efforts to research PFAS are stymied because of long-standing patent protections, according to Turner. “A lot of PFASs have been around since the 1950s and 1960s. But it was just in the 2010s when some states had started enacting policies regulating PFAS. But there is no national policy yet.”Missouri is one of 34 states with no PFAS regulation standards in drinking water. “States with enforceable drinking water standards for PFAS are Massachusetts, Michigan, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, and Vermont,” Hagstrom says. “Each state has different levels of acceptable amounts of PFAS in drinking water.” However, both Turner and Hagstrom agree that there may be no safe level of PFAS contamination.
Today, mitigation strategies against PFAS chemicals are still being developed. Hagstrom says charcoal water filters can help reduce or eliminate PFAS in your drinking water if they are appropriately used and maintained. But the best way to prevent the spread of PFAS is to raise awareness, according to Turner. “All change starts with advocacy and policy. I would ask everyone to start advocating that these chemicals are measured at your local water plant.”
One way Connecticut is mitigating PFAS is through a buyback program. State officials are paying local fire departments and public safety agencies for their old PFAS firefighting foam. Connecticut now faces the challenge of storing these chemicals or incinerating them at a temperature high enough to break the carbon-fluorine bond.
The EPA claims many PFAS chemicals are no longer being manufactured in the United States, and historical sources are slowly phasing out. EPA says eight leading chemical producers in the US agreed to eliminate the use of PFOA in their products and their emissions. However, PFAS and PFOA are still in use overseas, and products containing the chemicals can be imported. Foreign consumer goods such as carpet, leather, apparel, textiles, paper and packaging, coatings, rubber, and plastics may contain PFOA.