With a deadly pandemic, an economic downturn, the climate crisis and an urgent need for racial and economic justice, President Joe Biden already has plenty on his plate. But another cause demanding federal attention is turning up in people’s sinks and the nation’s waterways.
Toxic, fluorinated chemicals are present in as many as 1,500 drinking water systems across the country, affecting up to 110 million people. These hazardous, human-made compounds have a long and hard-to-pronounce name: per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS. They have been linked to cancers, immune system disorders and liver and thyroid disease. And the presence of these compounds can render vaccines less effective against diseases including tetanus and diphtheria.
A study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention using 2003-2004 data found PFAS in the blood of 98% of participants, selected to be representative of the entire U.S. population.
PFAS are known as “forever chemicals,” because they accumulate, rather than break down, in the environment and in people’s bodies. Getting rid of them is notoriously difficult.
This stickiness is a feature, not a bug: the compounds were designed by chemical companies to be extremely durable and resistant to water, oils and heat. That’s why PFAS have been widely used for decades in common items like snow pants, pizza boxes and all kinds of cookware, cleaning products and clothing. They are also found in firefighting foams used at airports, refineries and military bases.