PFAS in a Nutshell

Posted April 13th, 2024

PFAS Basics.  The Significance of the EPA’s Recently Imposed Limits on PFAS Levels in Drinking Water

 Extracted from a Statement from Guardian Editor Georgia Warren

April 2024

With so many big, splashy headlines fighting for our attention every day, it’s easy to miss those vital stories that build drip by drip, slowly over many years.

Falling into that bucket this week was the news that the US government has imposed the first-ever limits on levels of PFAS in our drinking water. The Guardian has been aggressively covering the health threat posed by PFAS for years, including a year-long investigation with Consumer Reports that revealed the extent to which these so-called “forever chemicals” have permeated US drinking water supplies.

For those who haven’t been following this story, this acronym masks a dangerous issue that everyone with a human body should be aware of.

OK, so what are PFAS?
PFAS (short for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances) are a group of about 15,000 human-made chemical compounds used widely in manufacturing to make products resistant to water, stains or heat – meaning they’re in everything from aerospace engineering components to takeout containers. Also known as “forever chemicals”, PFAS are unable to break down naturally in the environment or in our bodies.

Why should we care about them?
In recent years, scientists have discovered that exposure to PFAS is linked to a myriad of serious health problems, including cancer, obesity and birth defects. While many of the vast number of PFAS compounds remain unstudied, it is understood today that any exposure to some of the known highly toxic varieties is considered a health and cancer risk.

Are we all being exposed to these chemicals?
In short: yes – everywhere, all the time. In the past two months alone, the Guardian has published stories revealing that PFAS are entering our bodies via sources as disparate as bandagesartificial turfplastic sandwich baggies and household dust. However, our biggest exposure to PFAS is via our food and water – which takes us to this week’s big news.

What happened with PFAS this week?
On Wednesday, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced legally enforceable drinking water limits for a group of the most dangerous PFAS compounds, after years of issuing only advisories. All US water providers will soon have to test their water and then install treatment systems that can filter PFAS if the results exceed EPA limits.

Is the PFAS problem solved then?
Public health advocates say it’s a great step – but not enough, as drinking water represents only about 20% of human PFAS exposure. Diet is likely a larger problem, as PFAS enter our food system via packaging, storage and machinery in factories, as well as during the farming process via contaminated water and sewage sludge used as fertilizer.

Is there hope for further action?
According to reporter Tom Perkins, who has been leading our PFAS coverage and provided this excellent analysis on the state of play following the EPA’s announcement this week: “Where there’s most hope is at the state level, where legislatures have started banning PFAS for all non-essential uses. It’s already happening in Maine and Minnesota. In turn, that creates market pressure on companies to stop using the chemicals altogether, because what are you going to do: produce shoes that can be sold in Mississippi but not in Maine? That wouldn’t make any sense.” Indeed, 3M, one of the world’s largest producers of the chemicals, announced last year that it would no longer make the compounds, citing in part the regulatory and legal environment.

That’s a lot of information: it seems the Guardian has really been on top of this issue.
Indeed. According to environment editor Mark Oliver: “In 2019, we launched a series called Toxic America, inspired by the idea that compared with the EU and other places, US safeguards and regulations around the threat of toxic chemicals were weaker. It’s one of those times where our outsider lens on the US can be helpful for how we see issues that perhaps other outlets aren’t seeing with as much alarm. We got a lot of engagement from readers on that series, and they helped us fund more journalism in that area. We’ve been in the vanguard of coverage around this ever since.”


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