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Breaking down PFAS: What an environmental reporter thinks you should know about these 'forever chemicals'

Wendy Thomas's water filtering system in the basement of her home in Merrimack, New Hampshire. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
Wendy Thomas's water filtering system in the basement of her home in Merrimack, New Hampshire. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

Editor's Note: This is an excerpt from WBUR's daily morning newsletter, WBUR Today. If you like what you read and want it in your inbox, sign up here

Is there something in your water? And what should we be doing about it? For the past few months, WBUR health reporter Gabrielle Emanuel and environmental correspondent Barbara Moran have been looking into those questions for a new series on the toxic “forever chemicals” known as PFAS.

You probably heard of PFAS. But before the series kicks off this week, we wanted to go through some of the basics. Call it a PFAS FAQ.

Take it away, Barb:

First of all, how do you pronounce PFAS?

BM: I say PEE-fass. Some people say puh-FASS, but that’s rare. Nobody can decide if it’s singular or plural, so I usually say “PFAS chemicals.”

Thanks for clearing that up (sorta). So, what exactly are PFAS and where do they come from?

BM: PFAS are a group of chemicals with super-strong chemical bonds. They were invented in the 1930s, and there are now about 50 gazillion of them. (OK more like “thousands,” but you get my point.) They repel water and oil really well, so they’ve been used in 500 gazillion consumer products, like stain-proof fabrics and non-stick frying pans and slippy-slidey dental floss.

Sounds great! What’s the problem?

BM: PFAS chemicals are toxic and those super-strong bonds mean they don’t break down easily. So, when they get into your body, they stick around for years — piling up and causing trouble. And unfortunately they can get into your body in a lot of ways, like eating food in PFAS-laden containers, eating fish from contaminated rivers and lakes, and drinking contaminated water.

Yikes. And are you sure they’re toxic?

BM: Yep, sorry. The National Academies said in their 2022 report that there is "sufficient evidence" of association between PFAS exposure and kidney cancer in adults, decreased immune response in adults and children, high cholesterol in adults and children, and decreased infant and fetal growth.

Is there any way to get these things out of our bodies?

BM: Bleeding, breast feeding, pee and poop. Other than that, nope. Leeches, anyone?

Ew gross! How do I stay away from PFAS? 

BM: First off, make sure your drinking water is safe. Massachusetts has strict PFAS rules for public drinking water, but if you have a private well, get it tested. You can also check out this tip sheet from my colleague Gabrielle for more advice on avoiding PFAS.

I feel like PFAS chemicals came out of nowhere. When did it/they become “a thing?”

BM: Around the early 2000s, when people started really connecting PFAS exposure to disease. The general public got woken up to PFAS a few years ago when Mark Ruffalo came out with “Dark Waters,” the movie that made PFAS sexy. Thank you, Hollywood!

What is Massachusetts doing about PFAS? Is it enough?

BM: There’s a PFAS omnibus bill in the Massachusetts Legislature that would do a lot, like banning food packaging and consumer products with intentionally-added PFAS from the state by 2030. But most experts say the only way to really deal with PFAS is to stop making it/them in the first place.

Is there any way to get rid of these things?

BM: Burn em! At a really high temp. Right now that’s the only solution and it’s not a great one. Some hopeful news emerged from Northwestern University last year, when scientists reported a simple way to destroy some PFAS molecules. Fingers crossed they can scale it up, or find another way to destroy these things. In any case, we’ll be dealing with them for a while.

Nik here, again. You can read Barb's full, up-to-date PFAS explainer here. And follow the rest of our PFAS coverage — including Gabrielle's tip sheet — over the next two weeks and beyond using this link.


Nik DeCosta-Klipa Newsletter Editor
Nik DeCosta-Klipa is the newsletter editor for WBUR.



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