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All About PFAS, the ‘Forever Chemicals’ That US and EU Are Targeting

Nov 07, 2023Nov 07, 2023

What do you do about lab-made chemicals that are in 99% of people in the US and have been linked to immune system problems and cancer? Whose bonds are so stable that they’re often called “forever chemicals?” Meet PFAS, a class of chemicals that some scientists call the next DDT. For consumers, they are best known as components in products such as Scotchgard and Teflon. For businesses, PFAS — which are used to make hundreds of everyday products, from stents to firefighting foams — are a puzzle that has already created billions of dollars worth of liabilities. But 70 years of unchecked proliferation are ending. The US government is engaged in a sweeping multi-agency effort to reduce their presence in the nation’s air, water, land and food, and European Union regulators are also cracking down.

1. What are PFAS?

PFAS (“PEE-fas”) stands for per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances. Previously called PFCs, FCs or fluorocarbons, they come in an estimated 15,000 varieties. Some have been made since the 1950s by companies such as 3M Co. and DuPont (now DuPont spinoff Chemours Co.). They’re characterized by bonds between carbon and fluorine that are among the strongest in organic chemistry. Their consumer-friendly abilities were discovered by accident — in 1938 when a DuPont scientist was experimenting with refrigerants, and in 1952 when a 3M researcher splashed an experimental mixture on shoes, which then became stainproof — giving rise to 3M’s Scotchgard. Consumers may be more familiar with the names of two of the most studied forms, PFOS (Perfluorooctanesulfonic acid), once used in Scotchgard; and PFOA (Perfluorooctanoic acid), also sometimes called C-8, once used to make Teflon.

2. What are PFAS in?

For a start, they’re in many types of outdoor clothing, camping gear, shoes, textiles, coated papers for fast-food takeout, firefighting foams and surfactants — compounds that reduce the surface tension between two things — for electronics manufacturing. Every year brings revelations about new products they’re used in; most recently, toilet paper, dental floss, semiconductors and solar panels. The medical equipment and construction industries depend on them too. Private labs have warned that handling blue chemical ice packs, sunscreen and Post-It Notes can expose a person to PFAS. And because the chemicals also get around on their own, they pop up in polar bears, newborn babies and kale. PFAS are found in high levels in the water of communities around the world.

3. Are they dangerous?

It depends who you ask. A scientific panel that from 2005 to 2013 monitored the blood and health of about 70,000 people in West Virginia and Ohio who lived near a DuPont Teflon plant found a “probable link” between PFOA exposure and cases of kidney cancer, testicular cancer, thyroid disease, ulcerative colitis, high cholesterol and pre-eclampsia. Animal studies have shown PFOS affects the ability of cells to communicate with each other — potentially hampering the immune system’s ability to destroy viruses and the rogue cells that cause cancer. In Minnesota, near a 3M plant, there’s been a debate over whether PFAS are linked to problems such as lowered fertility and childhood cancer. US and European regulators now advise that they can lead to increased risk of miscarriage, developmental delays in children, increased risk of obesity, and reduced response to vaccines.

4. Is there a big difference between varieties?

The argument over whether a newer generation of PFAS is safer than the older, phased-out types is ongoing. Manufacturers distinguish between older types, known as long-chain, and short-chain varieties. Long-chain PFAS have more than eight fluorine-carbon bonds. Around the year 2000, manufacturers began switching to short-chain PFAS, some of which have been shown to spend less time in the body. The Performance Fluoropolymer Partnership, which represents some manufacturers, says PFAS are “diverse” and cannot be regulated as a single group. Many scientists didn’t agree, saying some short-chain PFAS — including those currently used in Scotchgard spray and Teflon manufacturing — may be as harmful to the liver, thyroid and kidney as the long-chain versions they replaced. More recently, 3M has said it will stop making all types of PFAS and work to get them out of its products by the end of 2025.

5. Who’s been affected by PFAS?

Around 200 million Americans have drinking water with traces of PFAS, according to the Environmental Working Group, a public-health advocacy organization. The group has mapped more than 3,000 concentrated pollution sites across all 50 US states. The US Environmental Protection Agency has started conducting its own tests; after checking the first 2,000 water systems, it said it had found 26.3 million people affected. Beyond water, people are said to be exposed to PFAS through indoor dust, food and consumer products. There are reports of PFA-polluted sites in Belgium, Germany, Japan, Australia and the Netherlands, and contamination through agricultural use of biosolids from wastewater treatment plants, and landfills where chemical-laden products were disposed.

6. What lawsuits have PFAS generated?

More than 15 state attorneys general have joined lawsuits against 3M and other companies over PFAS in firefighting foams. Class-action suits also allege that 3M, Honeywell International, Georgia-Pacific LLC, DuPont, Chemours and other companies improperly disposed of the chemicals, leading to personal injury and loss of property values. Chemours, DuPont and Corteva Inc. have reached a provisional settlement to pay $1.2 billion to settle claims about PFAS in public drinking water. 3M agreed to pay as much as $12.5 billion to settle similar claims. In June, a US unit of Belgium-based Solvay SA agreed to pay New Jersey’s environmental regulator $75 million in damages and $100 million to fund remediation projects in a PFAS-related case.

7. What’s the US plan to contain PFAS?

A lack of national limits on PFAS has kept the regulatory burden on municipalities and states, many of which are setting their own drinking-water standards or taking legal action. California banned textiles and cosmetics with PFAS, for example. Finally, in late 2021, the White House announced a multi-agency, nationwide approach.

• The main component is a three-year strategy for the EPA describing specific regulations with deadlines and research the agency plans to conduct to understand where additional controls may be needed. In March 2023, the agency published proposed standards for drinking water levels for six PFAS, including PFOA and PFOS. A final rule is expected by January 2024. The EPA proposed in September 2022 that PFOA and PFOS be designated as hazardous under a law that would require the most polluted sites, known as Superfund sites, to be cleaned up. If the rule is finalized, companies could be on the hook for as much as $22 billion in clean-up costs — and more lawsuits. The agency is exploring its authority under the Toxic Substances Control Act to determine whether to restrict PFAS currently used in commerce.

• The Department of Defense is examining the PFAS concentrations at nearly 700 of its installations and is urging military bases to boost efforts to manage or destroy the chemicals. The Pentagon expects to complete the assessments by the end of 2023.

• The Federal Aviation Administration is working to help airports switch to PFAS-free formulations of specialized foams used to fight aircraft fires.

• The Food and Drug Administration is testing the extent of PFAS in the US food supply. It says so far that most food not grown in areas with known contamination don’t have detectable levels.

8. What’s going on elsewhere?

• In February, the EU’s European Chemical Agency introduced a broad new restriction. Under it, by this fall, manufacturers who want to keep selling products in the US must share information with regulators about any PFAS in the goods. The Netherlands government has said it will hold 3M legally responsible for PFAS pollution in the Scheldt river.

• Japan’s government banned PFOS and PFOA in 2021, and its Environment Ministry announced in August that it would embark on full-scale research into the toxicity of the chemicals. The Japanese chemical company DIC Corp. has developed a new PFAS-free surfactant for use in the production of semiconductors amid growing concerns about the health risks to workers in that industry.

9. Can I do anything to limit my risk?

There’s very little that can be done about PFAS you’ve already been exposed to; they leave your body very slowly, over time. Most doctors won’t test for PFAS, so it’s hard to even find out your exposure levels. Some studies suggest blood-drawing might reduce PFAS in blood, but research is preliminary. Childbearing can decrease levels, though unfortunately that’s by passing them on to the child. When it comes to avoiding exposure, you can:

• Check the the map maintained by the Environmental Working Group to see if your area is a PFAS hotspot. You can determine whether your municipality filters for them, and you can get an in-home filter.

• Some consumer advocacy groups recommend ditching non-stick cookware — from pie pans to rice cookers — especially if they’re scratched. The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency has a guide.

• Dr. Philip Landrigan, a children’s health advocate, has recommended not using Scotchgard “even as we wait for more definitive information” about the current formulation.

• You can try to avoid PFAS in products you buy, though that’s difficult given the lack of labeling. Articles abound that identify products such as cosmetics and outdoor gear that do or don’t contain PFAS.

--With assistance from Christopher Cannon, Pat Rizzuto and Adam M. Taylor.

(A previous version of this story mischaracterized the origins of Chemours Co.)

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