Read the full article by Barbara Moran (WBUR)

“The chemicals called ‘PFAS’ have been in the news a lot lately — like the recent revelation that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency was allowing PFAS-contaminated water to be treated in Lowell and discharged  into the Merrimack River, or the news that chemical giant 3M is suing the state of New Hampshire over the state’s strict PFAS drinking water standards.

So, what are these chemicals, anyway? And should we be worried about them? …

There are around 4,700 chemicals in the PFAS family, and they all have two things in common:

  1. They’re all man-made.
  2. They contain linked chains of carbon and fluorine.

The bond between carbon and fluorine atoms is one of the strongest in nature. That means that PFAS chemicals don’t degrade easily; they stick around in the human body and the environment for a long time, and are very stable in water. That’s why some people call them ‘forever chemicals.’ …

The two PFAS chemicals you’re most likely to hear about are per-fluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS). Neither of them are made in the United States any longer — manufacturers started voluntarily phasing them out in the early-2000s — but because they were manufactured here for decades, they remain the most widespread in the environment, most-studied and best understood. Manufacturers from other countries still produce PFOS and PFOA, and can ship products made with them into the U.S.

U.S. manufacturers have replaced PFOA and PFOS with other members of the PFAS family. The effects of these next-generation PFAS chemicals are not as well understood.

The bottom line is there are still PFAS chemicals in the everyday products we buy…

Because these chemicals have been used in many consumer products for many decades, most people have been exposed to them. The chemicals probably enter our bodies through the food we eat, like microwave popcorn, food in takeout containers or fish from contaminated water. But some people are exposed through highly contaminated drinking water, according to Laurel Schaider, a research scientist with the Silent Spring Institute. People can also inhale PFAS-contaminated air or dust. According to the CDC, studies have shown that only a small amount of PFAS can be absorbed through your skin. Studies estimate that 98% of Americans  have detectable levels of PFAS in their blood.

Scientific studies have provided ‘strong evidence’ linking PFAS exposure to elevated cholesterol, thyroid disease, damage to the liver and kidneys, effects on fertility and low birth weight, according to Schaider. Research also suggests that exposure to PFAS chemicals might suppress the immune systems of young children, potentially making vaccines less effective.

Some studies also suggest an elevated risk of testicular and kidney cancer in people exposed to higher levels of PFAS. Scientists are less certain about the health effects of newer PFAS compounds that replaced PFOS and PFOA, and the effects of low level exposure, Schaider says.

Despite the remaining uncertainty, scientists have found that PFAS chemicals affect ‘every major organ in the human body,’ says Elsie Sunderland, a PFAS researcher at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. ‘So that is scary for me.’…

PFAS chemicals were widely used in firefighting foams on military bases, airports and firefighting training facilities. They are also found in landfills when products containing PFAS break down, and in fertilizer made from human waste or sewage. All these sources can contaminate nearby drinking water supplies.

Estimates about the extent of contaminated drinking water vary widely, based on testing methods and sensitivity. The Environmental Working Group, a consumer-education nonprofit, estimates that 1,500 drinking water systems across the country may be contaminated, affecting 110 million Americans.

Between 2013 and 2015, the EPA tested 158 public water systems and 13 smaller systems in Massachusetts for six PFAS chemicals. Nine drinking water sources in the state, including municipal water supplies in Hyannis, Westfield and Hudson, were found to have PFAS levels above EPA guidelines, according to the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection. More testing has been done since then; a DEP map of test sites  was last updated in October 2019.

Northeastern University also maintains an interactive map of PFAS contamination in the U.S.

Some areas responded quickly to high levels of PFAS chemicals in their water supply; both Hyannis and Ayer have spent millions of dollars installing municipal filtration systems. In September Gov. Charlie Baker proposed adding $20 million to the state budget for PFAS remediation…

If you want to decrease the PFAS chemicals in your water, Phil Brown, a PFAS researcher at Northeastern, suggests installing a home water filter that uses activated carbon or a reverse osmosis system.

‘Obviously we want to protect ourselves and our families,’ he says, ‘but we also want to focus on getting cities and states and the federal government to their job.’…

There are no federal drinking water limits for PFAS chemicals…

There are, however, federal guidelines. In 2016 the EPA issued ‘health advisory levels’ for public water supplies at 70 parts per trillion for PFOS and PFOA combined. These levels are guidelines only, and cover only the two most common PFAS chemicals.

A handful of states have guidelines stricter than the EPA, including Massachusetts. The current MassDEP guidelines say that the combined levels of PFOS, PFOA and three other PFAS chemicals combined should be below 70 parts per trillion. Other states, most notably New Jersey and New Hampshire, have stricter requirements. New Hampshire now has the strictest limits in the country: 12 parts per trillion for PFOA, 15 parts per trillion for PFOS, 18 parts per trillion for PFHxS and 11 parts per trillion for PFNA.

Massachusetts plans to draft legal limits for PFAS chemicals by the end of 2019, and final limits by mid-2020…

In February 2019, the EPA announced a plan to start regulating PFOS and PFOA by the end of the year; specifically, listing them as hazardous substances under the Superfund law to help communities clean up contamination, and also recover costs. The EPA is also gathering information to determine if it should regulate other PFAS chemicals.

Experts are skeptical that the EPA will follow through.

‘They have been overturning regulations day by day,’ Brown says. ‘They’re so anti-regulatory that it seems unlikely.’ …”