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‘Forever Chemicals’ & Their Impact on Drinking Water

July 18, 2023

This blog is authored by Kerry Kinney, Ph.D., and Lynn Katz, Ph.D., for the Center for Health and Environment: Education and Research.

Perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalykl substances — commonly known as PFAS — class of over 9,000 synthetic chemicals manufactured for use in a broad range of consumer and industrial products, including food packaging, clothing, cosmetics and firefighting foam. Unfortunately, the structure and extremely strong carbon-fluorine bonds in these PFAS compounds greatly enhances their chemical, physical and biological stability and persistence in the environment.

Water faucet in the on position with water streaming out,

These “forever chemicals” are now found virtually everywhere, including in drinking water, rainwater, surface water, groundwater, soil, food, household dust and even in us. Nearly all Americans have detectable PFAS in their blood, which is a major concern as PFAS exposures are linked to a broad spectrum of adverse health effects that range from cancer to developmental effects. Just as concerning, the potential toxicity and health effects associated with many PFAS compounds remain unknown.

Addressing PFAS Contamination

The proposed tightening of drinking water standards to reduce the allowable concentrations of 6 PFAS compounds and the announcement by 3M, a major PFAS manufacturer, to phase out the production and use of PFAS compounds by 2025 are welcome first steps to address PFAS contamination and protect human health.

However, despite potential billion-dollar payouts by PFAS manufacturers to settle claims associated with the PFAS contamination, there are few current treatment options available to effectively remediate the PFAS mixtures already released into the environment at the vast scales needed. Current thermal technologies are too energy intensive and expensive to be broadly applicable while other biological and chemical technologies under development show promise, but many are too slow or are speciation-dependent. Finally, it’s difficult to ensure that additional PFAS byproducts are not released to the environment during treatment. As a result of these and many other challenges, it will likely take decades to remediate the recalcitrant fraction of PFAS in the environment.

The Future of PFAS

While PFAS is getting the long-overdue attention it deserves as an important forever chemical with numerous human health concerns, this is just the latest threat to be recognized. Prior to PFAS, there were polychlorinated biphenyls, pesticides and chlorinated solvents that were manufactured and released into the environment before their ecosystem and human health consequences were understood. Similarly, there are a broad range of phthalates and flame retardants of growing health concern that we routinely bring into our homes via our furnishings, flooring materials and consumer products.

The regulatory structure in the United States is unable to effectively address the sheer number of PFAS (and other compounds) that lack toxicity and fate testing prior to their broad production and use. The problem is magnified by the fact that phasing out a few PFAS compounds or other compounds of concern is ineffective as these can be replaced by substitutes with unknown properties that are not necessarily less toxic. One approach could be to regulate PFAS as a class of chemicals to minimize the use of poorly characterized PFAS substitutions. Just as importantly, we need to identify the toxicity of PFAS compounds and their breakdown products to prioritize which compounds to phase out.

While this approach will help us begin to address the current PFAS issues, a more fundamental change is needed to prevent the manufacture and release of the next generation of emerging contaminants. Simply put, we need to develop a new methodology and regulatory structure that ensures that new chemicals can be proven safe prior to their manufacture and use. We should not be generating chemicals that ultimately will end up in the environment if we do not have effective treatment technologies for mitigating their impact on ecosystems and human health. Otherwise, we will continue to be exposed to potentially harmful chemicals and spend decade after decade trying to clean them up.