What they are and how to reduce your exposure

The chemicals that waterproof your rain jacket, non-stick pan, and stain-resistant sofa have one thing in common: once they leak into the environment, they never break.

This is a quality that Illinois health and environmental authorities are struggling with as they seek to develop standards to ensure chemicals are used safely.

There are about 5,000 of these man-made chemical compounds that, due to their unique and durable quality, have given per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, their apt nickname: chemicals forever.

Since 2021, the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency has issued six state health warnings for the substances, although the claims require no action.

“At present, there is no applicable standard for federal or state drinking water, called the Maximum Contaminant Level or MCL, for any of the more than 5,000 known PFAS chemicals. The Illinois EPA is collecting data in the PFAS Investigation Network for develop a state MCL, “the agency says on its website.

Meanwhile, Greater Chicago’s Metropolitan Water Reclamation District recently said it will step up efforts to monitor chemicals forever once the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency approves the test methods. The US EPA is conducting a risk assessment which is expected to be completed by 2024.


PFAS are used in industrial and consumer products to make non-stick items, resistant to oil, water and stains.

“They are very useful, because you have an oil and water repellent chemical here and, at the same time, it is very soluble in water. The properties of these compounds are truly unique,” said John Scott, a senior analytical chemist at Illinois Sustainable. Technology Center. “What makes them so useful is also what makes them so problematic.”

Through landfill spills, sewage sludge, and industrial waste, the substances have not only found their way into our water, air and soil, but are also present in nearly all Americans, according to the U.S. Centers for Control and Prevention of diseases.

The extent to which chemicals are forever harmful to both the environment and people is still unknown, although animal studies suggest that the substances can affect fertility, growth and development, as well as lead to levels higher cholesterol levels and an increased risk of kidney and testicular cancer.

Launched for widespread commercial use in the 1950s, PFAS have recently been the subject of growing national concern as scientists and government officials rush to learn more about the substances, their prevalence in our environment, and the health risks they face. may involve.

More recently, the EPA issued a proposal to designate two of the most used PFAS as hazardous substances under the federal Superfund Act. The proposal came two months after the agency said the safe lifelong exposure of chemicals is 0.004 and 0.02 parts per trillion, essentially making any level of exposure a health risk.

The longevity of PFAS in the environment is mirrored when they enter the human body, taking years to slowly leave the bloodstream.

“We know they are extremely persistent and we know that if we keep using these things, over time, the levels in the environment are only increasing over time,” Scott said.

He added that PFAS are known to biomagnify in nature, meaning the higher an organism is in the food chain, the higher concentrations of PFAS are found in that organism’s system.

Reduce the exposure

One of the ironies of forever chemicals is that, despite their long-lasting quality, they are often used in consumer items intended for short, single-use uses such as greaseproof paper, fast food containers, and disposable plates, Scott said.

Avoiding PFAS when possible is the best solution on an individual level, Scott said, adding that while it will be difficult considering their widespread use, he thinks it will be necessary to replace chemicals and come up with a substitute that has the same properties but breaks down when needed. .

“People need to be aware of where these things are in the products they buy,” he said. “If there was a better system for labeling materials containing PFAS, people might be able to make a better choice. And if they are aware of the problems and avoid them, eventually people will force their manufacturers not to produce them.”

The Illinois EPA lists several ways to reduce exposure, although it notes that “preventing all exposure to PFAS is impractical due to the widespread historical and current use of PFAS.”

The agency recommends the following actions:

• Use non-stick coated cookware according to manufacturer guidelines (not all non-stick coatings contain PFAS).

• Use stainless steel or cast iron cookware instead of non-stick coated cookware.

• Avoid oil and water resistant food packaging.

• Avoid stain-resistant coverings on carpets, furniture and clothing.

• Avoid water repellents on clothing.

• Use personal care products without “PTFE” or “Fluorine” ingredients.

• Use water filters designed to remove PFAS.

• Regularly dust household surfaces with a damp cloth.

Given the prevalence of chemicals forever, the U.S. EPA recommends that people concerned about PFAS in their drinking water contact their local water utility to see if they have monitoring data for the substances or can provide specific recommendations.

“The EPA recommends that public water systems that find PFOA or PFOS in their drinking water take steps to inform customers, perform additional sampling to assess the level, extent and source of contamination, and examine steps to limit exposure. “, the agency said.

• Jenny Whidden is a Report For America member of the Climate Change and Environment Corps for the Daily Herald. To help support her work with a tax deductible donation, see https://www.reportforamerica.org/newsrooms/the-daily-herald-2/


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