“Permanent chemicals” are dangerous, ubiquitous, and indestructible. The problem can be solved, however, according to health experts and scientists, if the government bans the products in the house.
On Tuesday, the US Environmental Protection Agency issued strict limits on six substances and polyfluoroalkyl (PFAS) in drinking water.
It’s the first time the government has moved to regulate PFAS, a group of thousands of chemicals used in everything from dental floss and toilet paper, to household chemicals and food packaging.
PFAS, aka “persistent chemicals,” take years to leave the human body, which is a big problem because it’s been linked to several cancers, thyroid disease, liver damage, decreased fertility, asthma, allergies, and decreased response to vaccines. for children. .
These chemicals are abundant in the areas we live in every day – in our water, food, air, and even the dust in our homes.
The EPA’s proposal to reduce PFAS in drinking water is going in the right direction, but it only targets one source of daily exposure.
“I think it’s the first step forward,” Elsie Sunderland, a professor of organic chemistry who leads research on environmental pollution at Harvard, told Insider.
But we still have a long way to go.
Because of the scale of the problem, the EPA’s request for drinking water “doesn’t go far enough,” Carmen Messerlian, a professor of environmental reproductive epidemiology at Harvard’s TH Chan School of Public Health, told Insider.
“The government needs to hold these companies accountable at the highest level and say, ‘No more PFAS, we’re banning them,'” said Messerlian, who studies PFAS in reproductive health.
The dangers of PFAS production
PFAS have been found in Antarctica, Arctic sea ice, on Mount Everest, in all oceans, rainwater and soil around the world.
Although PFAS is linked to a number of diseases and conditions, the chemical does not cause everyone to develop health problems, but it does increase the risk that some people will.
“There are probably more effects. We just haven’t been able to do the science to show it,” Messerlian said.
Last year the EPA tested the published science, to lay the groundwork for future regulations: What level of PFAS in drinking water will not cause health problems, even for people at risk?
For PFOA, the agency determined that the safe level in drinking water was 0.004 parts per trillion (ppt), and for PFOS, it was 0.02 ppt.
This is below what modern labs can detect. Therefore, in the eyes of the EPA, the safe level of these two PFAS chemicals is zero.
The regulations issued on Tuesday are two orders of magnitude higher than the national guidelines, at 4 ppt for PFOA and PFOS. This is the level at which labs can reliably detect the substance, according to the EPA.
Filter systems can remove these chemicals from drinking water to meet the new regulations, but they don’t prevent all PFAS from entering your body through food, furniture, and clothing.
“You can’t control drinking water, without talking to the other side,” Sunderland said, referring to the countless US companies selling products full of PFAS.
It is worth noting that PFOA and PFOS have been phased out in the US since the 2000s. But thousands of other PFASs are still being produced. This means that more and more are entering the environment – and drinking water – every day.
Never stop medication to ‘turn off the tap’
The next big step for the US government is to phase out PFAS from non-essential household products – especially equipment that touches food, experts told Insider.
“Obviously, you want to turn off the faucet, turn off the faucet,” Ian Cousins, an environmental scientist who studies PFAS at Stockholm University, told Insider.
The European Union has already proposed banning 10,000 PFAS. Cousins said it would make sense to do so in the U.S., although some “essential” PFASs may persist, such as electrical wiring or medical equipment.
Obviously, some PFASs are not dangerous, but the precautionary approach will treat them all as dangerous until they are proven safe.
“In the future, we may want to start thinking about managing them as a class,” Sunderland said.
The root cause of this problem is a major flaw in US governance
Even if the government cuts out and cleans up PFAS, the same will happen to other chemicals if we don’t address the bigger problem, Sunderland said.
The root cause of this problem is that US law does not require new drugs to be thoroughly tested for safety or risk to public health.
Drug manufacturers are “innocent until proven guilty,” Sunderland said, and the burden of proof falls on communities that hold the companies responsible for the health risks they suspect of introducing new drugs.
Until that system changes, manufacturers can only continue to create new drugs that have unknown effects on the human body.
At the very least, Messerlian said, companies should disclose what’s in their products so consumers can make informed decisions.
“Can I stop myself from using everything under the sun that contains PFAS? It would be very difficult. Even for someone who is an expert in this area like me,” he said.
“What we need, first of all, are grassroots initiatives that hold these companies accountable for what they’re putting in our bodies.”
This article was first published by Business Insider.
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