Understanding the risks of ‘forever chemicals’

News about a family of toxic synthetic chemicals called PFASs—“per- and polyfluoralkyl substances”—has recently been making headlines in New England. In Connecticut, PFASs were found to be leaching out of landfills in Hartford and Ellington. In Massachusetts, a Lowell wastewater facility was discharging PFAS-laden treated water into the Merrimack River (although it since stopped).

Amidst all the buzz about PFASs, a November 8, 2019 WBUR article explored their potential health and environmental risks.

Known for their ability to repel oil, grease, and water, PFASs are used in many common items, such as stain-proof rugs, waterproof clothing, microwave popcorn bags, pizza boxes, and some types of dental floss and nonstick cookware. PFASs are also used in firefighting foams and in fertilizer made from human waste or sewage—and both of these uses can lead to contaminated water supplies.

PFASs have been dubbed “forever chemicals” because they’re composed of strongly bonded carbon and fluorine atoms that don’t degrade easily. They can last in the human body or in the environment for a long time. An estimated 98% of Americans have detectable levels of PFASs in their blood. Exposure is associated with thyroid cancer, liver and kidney damage, and reduced fertility and birth weight, as well as other conditions.

PFASs affect “every major organ in the human body,” Elsie Sunderland, associate professor of environmental science and engineering in the Department of Environmental Health at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, told WBUR. “So that is scary for me.”

She noted, however, that blood levels of one type of PFAS—PFOS, or perfluorooctane sulfonic acid—have significantly dropped since it was phased out of production around the year 2000. “If you stop producing it, yes, you can still find it,” she said. “But we also saw a very fast and dramatic reduction in both environmental samples and people’s blood.”

Read the WBUR article: What Are PFAS Chemicals, And Should I Be Freaking Out About Them?

Learn more

A primer on ‘forever chemicals’ (Harvard Chan School news)

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