In October 1945, National Geographic ran a feature on the “world of tomorrow,” in which it presented frozen foods from exotic lands, wildly efficient robotic machines for household chores, expedited mail delivery systems, and of course, DDT.

Back then, little was known about the louse-killing insecticide except that helped diminish outbreaks of diseases transmitted by insects and ticks.

In the 1950s and ‘60s, consumers began to realize that the pesticide dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT) was contaminating drinking water. And while the chemical was advantageous in killing insects, it wasn’t safe for human ingestion.

Public dispute over the chemical broke out over the next several decades.

Now, sixty years later, the use of DDT has been largely banned in most countries after researchers linked the chemical to cancer, autism, infertility and developmental delays. Still, however, traces of DDT are commonly found in drinking water and will persist in the environment for years.

Though the dialogue on DDT has settled down as retroactive measures were taken, a new devastating chemical has recently entered public discussion: per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances, otherwise known as PFAS.

Defining PFAS

Anyone who has cooked with non-stick pans or worn water-resistant shoes has come into contact with toxic PFAS.

Describing a class of more than 3,000 chemicals used in textiles, paper products, some firefighting foams and industrial processes, these synthetic chemicals have seen increased prevalence in society – leading to emergence in plants, animals, bodies of water and even humans.

In fact, research reveals that all Americans have already ingested some level of PFAS in their body.

Coined the “forever chemical,” PFAS is composed of a bond between carbon and fluorine which makes it functionally stain resistant and water repellant.

The strength of this bond makes it nearly impossible to break down. This means that the chemicals don’t go away quickly when they get into the environment.

Linda Birnbaum, Director of the National Toxicology Program (NTP) testified to the strong nature of the bond in the Senate reporting, “the carbon fluorine bond is one of the strongest ever created by man, and it’s rarely seen in nature.”

As quoted by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, she added, “the chemical composition of PFAS imparts high stability for consumer product design, but also makes PFAS extremely problematic in the environment, because they don’t easily degrade. In fact, PFAS remain in the environment for so long that scientists are unable to estimate an environmental half-life.”

When asked to cite a chemical parallel to PFAS, Birnbaum answered that as far as persistence, DDT was most similar.

“Although it was banned 40 years ago [in the U.S.], [DDT] is still found in every one of us,” she said.

Primarily ingested through water, food and the use-food related consumer products such as grease-resistant paper or pizza boxes and nonstick cookware, the prevalence of PFAS in everyday items makes it unavoidable. 

New research shows levels of PFAS in seafood from contaminated bodies of water may present a significant hazard. Hand-to-mouth transfer from treated textiles like stain-resistant carpet and upholstery are also significant sources of ingestion, particularly for children. With repeated exposure to these compounds that accumulate in the environment, the human body retains them for years – hence the nickname.

Finding the Source

“Basically, anything in our daily life that repels stains and water was made with PFAS,” reports senior environmental engineer, Matt Schroeder. “Now scientists and environmentalists are asking, ‘What are the long-term health effects of PFAS and what level of consumption is causing those effects?’”

Dragun Corporation, where Schroeder works, is working to answer exactly that – assessing water samples from various sites to identify and study levels of PFAS.

PFAS is commonly found on military bases
Photo by Efe Yağız Soysal on Unsplash

The search for regions where PFAS has highest prevalence revealed that trace amounts of PFAS exist even in regions that aren’t close to populations that use products containing PFAS.

“Even people in third world countries and polar bears in the arctic have a small level of PFAS in their blood,” Schroeder said. In higher amounts, PFAS has been commonly found in industrial sites, landfills and military bases. 

The runoff of waste from these sites leaks into groundwater and surface water, contaminating drinking water in communities all over the United States. One of the most common sites of PFAS contamination is Air Force bases, where it’s used in a firefighting foam during emergency drills. 

“[PFAS] is very effective at suppressing fires. Unfortunately, that kind of activity has led to these chemicals getting into the environment, especially military bases,” Schroeder said. “[Michigan] has military bases that have realized that they have a problem with the PFAS getting into the groundwater and into people’s drinking water wells.”

Noting this, Dragun Corporation has designed a system to pump water out of the ground, remove the chemicals, and put clean water back into the ground.

Threat to Water

It’s clear, however, that cleaner water is reliant on more than one company’s involvement.

PFAS is ubiquitous, Schroeder noted. It’s in almost every body of water around the world.

According to recent data from the Environmental Working Group (AWG), Michigan and its Great Lakes have the most PFAS contaminated sites. This is the reason for major health concern as drinking water can be contaminated from surface water intakes miles downstream from an industrial source. 

PFAS appears largely in the Great Lakes of Michigan - threatening drinking water for the surrounding communities
Photo by Андрей Гаврилюк on Unsplash

Just over two years ago, contractors for Wolverine Worldwide, a global footwear company located in West Michigan, discovered PFAS while testing ground drinking water at an old, forgotten waste dumping site used by the company.

The discovery changed the lives of many people living in the region who had long suffered health complications. Kent County, an area in West Michigan, witnessed this change first hand.

“Devastating. That’s the only word I can think to use,” said Sara Simmonds, environmental health director of the Kent County Health Department. “There’s anxiety and stress. Families are concerned about financial loss due to property values decreasing. They’re concerned about the health of their family members and pets. It’s the unknown, the ‘what if’, that has eroded the mental health of our community.”

PFAS appears in drinking water, note Michigan citizens
Photo by Imani on Unsplash

The elevated risk of contaminants in their water supply has generated suspicion surrounding health issues, Simmonds elaborated. When the very tap they once presumed to be safe can no longer be trusted, locals may begin to wonder — did this cause my infertility? My sister’s cancer? My child’s learning disability?

The health effects of PFAS in the body still require further investigation. Determined thus far by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, PFAS substances can cause infertility, increased risk of cancer, and developmental effects in infants and toddlers, among others.

Finding Solutions

With the threat so widespread yet largely unknown, this issue requires global attention.

For now, those affected most significantly by it use short-term solutions while awaiting guidance for longer-lasting ones.

“[Kent County residents] are using filters,” Simmonds said.

She believes the long-term solution is “for them to have municipal water extended to their homes that can be treated and monitored on a regular basis so we can make sure their water is healthy for them.”

If a resident believes they have been exposed to groundwater, an environmental consultant can run tests on drinking water for PFAS. However, the science is still out on testing bloodwork to see the levels of PFAS that exist within the body, Simmonds said. As the data is collected, future health outcomes remain unknown.

“The toxicology data is still catching up to our ability to test for this stuff and we need better data on the health effects and when those happen,” affirms Schroeder. 

Though PFAS exposure was not widely documented in environmental samples until the early 2000s, these chemicals are not new. They were developed in the 1940s.

Studies in the 1970s showed low levels of PFAS in the blood of occupationally exposed workers. Another reported detection in the blood of the general human population in the 1990s led to increased concern surrounding the potential health effects of PFAS.

Water system testing between 2013 and 2015, published in Environmental Science & Technology Letters, revealed an estimated six million U.S. residents with drinking water supplies contaminated with PFAS above safety levels set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

In 2018, the Federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry issued a draft report suggesting safety levels for PFAS six times lower than those used by the EPA.

This means that even more U.S. residents and communities may be at risk of ingesting water contaminated with harmful levels of PFAS.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has taken recent action to address potential human health and environmental impacts of PFAS. In their Action Plan from February of 2019, they state,

EPA plans to map out high prevalence areas of PFAS in the environment so consumers can stay safer
Photo by delfi de la Rua on Unsplash

“Many stakeholders have questioned the extent and magnitude of PFAS contamination across the United States. To help fill these information gaps, the EPA intends to compile baseline, publicly available, PFAS environmental data into a visual map. Mapping tools can be used to show known or potential PFAS contamination sources and related information. The EPA may also specify sites of interest to environmental monitoring, such as wildlife refuges and fisheries, as well as additional impacted environmental media (for example, air or soil.) These efforts can be used to help assess environmental trends in PFAS concentrations and serve as one source of information for local and regional authorities.”

With further research and the desalination of the consequent findings, more information on PFAS can be expected in the coming years.

Take Action

While research and reactionary legislation help to further address the environmental and human health hazards of PFAS, it’s important to take the necessary steps to reduce exposure. As such, it would be beneficial to stay away from packaged greasy foods – like bagged popcorn, due to the grease-repellent coating that is often on them. Pizza and french fry boxes may also contain this.

Taking action against the spread of PFAS could include:

Opting for clothes that haven’t been treated for water resistance. Sportswear and outdoor gear can often contain the chemicals that produce this effect, so shop consciously if those are clothes you wear frequently.

Choosing non-stain resistant upholstery. When you can, choose furniture and carpets that aren’t marketed as “stain-resistant,” and don’t apply stain-resistant finishing treatment chemicals.

examples of non-stick cookware that may contain toxic levels of PFAS
Photo courtesy of Heather Gill on Unsplash

Avoiding products with teflon and non-stick cookware. In matters of personal-care, avoid products made with Teflon – which appears in dental floss, nail polish, moisturizers, and various cosmetic products. Non-stick cookware, while popular, may also have high levels of PFAS. If you notice one of your non-stick cookware items showing signs of deterioration, discard it.

Knowing what’s in your water. Simmonds speaks for many in voicing her belief that at the most basic level, all residents should be aware of what’s in their water.

“Be your own advocate. Sample your water and monitor it. Speak out on water-related issues, she said. “This is a basic human need, it’s not something we can live without. We have to protect it and make this a number one priority for our communities.”