The built environment is full of hidden hazards. Human beings spend a considerable amount of time indoors, where synthetic chemicals often lie in wait with the potential to make people ill. One group of chemicals known collectively as PFAS (perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances), or “forever chemicals,” has emerged as a particularly worrisome human health threat in recent years.
These chemicals have become more widely acknowledged because the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and other researchers continue finding them in unexpected places and in larger amounts than previously believed. Now, members of the medical community and the CDC are urging doctors and health systems to make PFAS blood tests more widely available, and insurance companies to more consistently cover the cost of testing.
Perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances are not naturally occurring. Because they resist water and oil, these chemicals have found widespread usage in food and beverage packaging, carpeting, clothes and fabrics, cookware, and many other products.
These chemicals were first identified by Pennsylvania state authorities in 2013, and other states have come to similar conclusions over the years. Pennsylvania now lists PFAS in its “Third Unregulated Contaminant Monitoring Rule,” which is designed to protect drinking water.
There’s still more to learn, however. The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) and experts across medical and scientific disciplines agree: our understanding of these chemicals’ long-term effects on the human body and the environment is far from complete.
“Only in the last few years have people started to investigate these, and the more they investigate them, the more we seem to find,” said Dr. Michael Meyer, Assistant Professor of Earth Systems Science at Harrisburg University. Dr. Meyer was one of several experts interviewed recently by abc27 / WHTM in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.
The ubiquity of these substances has researchers concerned. According to the CDC, large amounts of PFAS can affect biological growth and development. Research has shown a possible link between forever chemicals and thyroid malfunction, liver injuries, and impacts to reproductive and immunological health. Other health problems linked to PFAS include low birth weight, higher cholesterol, and a higher risk of testicular and kidney cancers. While our collective knowledge on this topic is continually growing, there are no medical treatments currently available to address PFAS in the human body.
People who work in chemical plants, and around fire retardants or extinguishers, face a higher risk of exposure. The previously mentioned industries – food preparation, cookware (non-stick pots and pans), home furnishings, and textiles – also see higher rates of worker exposure to forever chemicals. Signs point to PFAS being present in public and private water supplies throughout the United States, along with food, soil, homes, schools, and workplaces.
Along with the CDC, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and other public agencies make it easy for the public to learn more, find resources, report concerns, stay updated with research and regulations, and get involved with local, state, and federal policymakers as they work to respond to this threat.
As Dr. Meyer confirmed, scientists do not know as much about these forever chemicals as they would like, but we do understand that they can harm the body in lasting ways. Carrying out effective and routine testing for PFAS in our communities will help us understand where the hotspots for exposure are
, and draw conclusions about how best to keep our workers, students, and families safe.