Protecting against ‘forever chemicals’

March 16, 2023 – The U.S. Environmental Protectional Agency has proposed strict new limits on six types of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in drinking water. Public health experts are positive about the move but say that, ultimately, all types of these toxic chemicals—there are thousands in use—need to be regulated.

In a March 14 Insider article, two Harvard experts offered information on the health dangers of PFAS and how to protect from them.

Known as “forever chemicals” because they don’t break down in the environment or in our bodies, PFAS—resistant to water, grease, and heat—are found in a range of everyday products including food packaging, clothing, cosmetics, and toilet paper.

The Insider article noted that a number of studies have linked PFAS to cancers, high cholesterol, thyroid disease, liver damage, asthma, allergies, and reduced vaccine response in children. PFAS have also been linked with decreased fertility, newborn deaths, low birthweight, birth defects, and delayed development.

“That’s just the tip of the iceberg,” Carmen Messerlian, assistant professor of environmental, reproductive, perinatal, and pediatric epidemiology at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, told Insider. “This is only basically what we’ve been able to study. There’s probably a lot more impact. We just haven’t been able to do the science to be able to show it.”

“You see all these strange things depending on which PFAS you’re talking about and which organ system, but none of it’s good,” added Elsie Sunderland, Gordon McKay Professor of Environmental Chemistry at Harvard University.

The article offered strategies for reducing exposure to PFAS, such as frequently dusting and vacuuming, opening windows, filtering tap water, avoiding stain- or water-resistant carpets and fabrics, and tossing old Teflon pans, which were coated with PFAS prior to the 2000s.

But ultimately, Sunderland said, it would be best if companies stopped using PFAS in so many products. “You can’t just regulate in drinking water, without addressing the other side,” she said.

Read the Insider article: EPA cracks down on ‘forever chemicals’ in tap water: What PFAS are, where they are, and why they’re harmful