PFAS: What Is It? And Why Should You Care?

Dec 6, 2018

NOTE: This story comes from our partners at Michigan Radio’s Environment Report, a program exploring the relationship between the natural world and the everyday lives of people in Michigan.

There’s a class of chemicals you may have never heard of that’s been discovered in drinking water and at military and industrial sites across the country.

PFAS is a class of thousands of chemicals that repel oil and water and are used in nonstick coatings and in fire-fighting foam.

Pennsylvania’s PFAS Action Team, started by Governor Wolf in September, has identified twenty sites with this contamination — more than half are in the southeastern part of the state.

Two sites have been found in Allegheny County – the Pittsburgh Air National Guard base and the Pittsburgh Air Reserve Station

What are these chemicals? Where did they come from? Why are we using them? And how dangerous are they?

At the 1964 World Fair, DuPont had a song and dance presentation that included these lyrics:

“There’s a wonderful world of chemistry anywhere you wander….”

It depicts some of the optimism people had at the time. For much of the last century, all kinds of new useful household and industrial products were being discovered at a dizzying pace. It seemed so great.

The DuPont company’s advertising slogan was: “Better things for better living through chemistry.”

An accidental discovery in 1938 of a new class of chemicals eventually resulted in DuPont’s Teflon.

This was among the first of the PFAS chemicals.

“Part of the reason these chemicals are so popular and industrially useful is that they contain incredibly strong bonds between carbon and fluorine and they are both attracted to and repelled by water and very useful for all sorts of uses,” explained Genna Reed. She is a Lead Science and Policy Analyst at the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Companies such as DuPont and 3M found that carbon-flourine bond in PFAS [poly and perfluoroalkyl substances] chemicals could be used in things such as food packaging so hamburgers didn’t leave grease stains on the wrapper. They could be used to make stain resistant carpet and furniture. They could be used to make everything from floor waxes to dental floss to rain gear.

It’s estimated that there are more than 4,700 different types of these chemicals.

They’re everywhere. You almost certainly have products with PFAS chemicals in your home. Nearly everyone on earth has some of these chemicals in their bodies.

“They’re known as forever chemicals because the bonds are incredibly strong and very hard to break down. So, they’re very long lasting and hard to get rid of. So, they persist in our bodies, but also in the environment,” Reed said.

According the the U.S. government, some of these PFAS chemicals might affect growth, learning, and behavior of infants and older children. They might lower a woman’s chance of getting pregnant. They’re believed to interfere with the body’s natural hormones. They might increase cholesterol levels, affect the immune system, and increase the risk of cancer.

Credit Michigan Public Radio

DuPont and 3M stopped manufacturing some PFAS chemicals in the U.S. Some have been replaced with alternative versions that are not supposed to last as long because of their molecular structure. It’s not clear that those new chemicals are any safer.

David Savitz is Professor of Epidemiology in the Brown University School of Public Health. He’s investigated PFAS contamination near a DuPont facility in West Virginia.

“And as we keep looking, we keep finding it. We’re getting a handle on it. And, I think that’s worrisome when we keep discovering these problems, but ultimately that’s the way to solve the problem, to have the full scope of what you’re dealing with,” Savitz said.

Chances are other states are contaminated at a level far greater than the public knows. Pennsylvania regulators will start testing select drinking wanter sources for PFAS contamination.