A primer on ‘forever chemicals’

There’s been more and more news lately about the presence of “forever chemicals” in the environment. These widely used chemicals—whose technical name is “per- and polyfluoralkyl substances,” or PFASs—remain in the environment for thousands or even millions of years and have the potential to harm health.

A September 27, 2019 article in Self explained where the chemicals are found (in a wide variety of everyday products ranging from nonstick pans to grease-resistant food packaging to stain-repellent fabrics); why they take so long to break down (because of an extremely strong chemical bond); how they get into our bodies (mainly through drinking water); and how they may harm health (by affecting child development, reproduction, hormones, cholesterol, the immune system, and cancer risk).

Although more research is necessary on the health effects of PFASs, “We know enough that we should be very concerned,” said Joseph Allen, assistant professor of exposure assessment science at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. He said that even though some chemical manufacturers have stopped using certain PFASs, they can be replaced with one of 5,000 or so others.

Both Allen and Elsie Sunderland, professor of environmental science and engineering in Harvard Chan School’s Department of Environmental Health, said they lacked confidence in the current administration to prioritize the regulation of PFASs. Sunderland noted that current drinking water health advisory levels for two types of PFASs—PFOA and PFOS—are 70 parts per trillion, but these levels are non-enforceable and many scientists think the limit is too high. Sunderland recommended that people try to choose PFAS-free products to reduce their exposure.

Read the Self article: WTF Are Forever Chemicals?

Learn more

Op-ed: A call for products free of toxic chemicals (Harvard Chan School news)

Curbing the use of ‘forever’ chemicals (Harvard Chan School feature)

Health risks of widely used chemicals may be underestimated (Harvard Chan School news)