By David Seigerman, clean water communications specialist
The vast majority of freshwater fish in the U.S. are contaminated with toxins called PFAS, and eating just one of those fish may be equivalent to drinking PFAS-tainted water for a month. © savethesound.org
They are called “forever chemicals” for a reason. A couple of reasons, actually. The first is marketing. Acronyms tend to be ineffective when it comes to messaging; just ask any parent struggling to decipher a text in teenager shorthand. So, a reference to “PFAS” doesn’t register with most people, which is a problem because using their full official name – “per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances” – is even clunkier. If people can’t talk about a problem, they can’t do anything about it.
Forever chemicals, though…that’s good branding. It’s an attention-grabber, as it should be, because the more significant reason they are called “forever chemicals” is that PFAS, according to a 2022 report by Waterkeeper Alliance, are both biopersistent (they can remain in organisms a long time without breaking down) and bioaccumulative (over time, they can “build up in ever increasing amounts in people, wildlife, aquatic life, and the environment.”) In other words, they are difficult to destroy so the problem gets worse over time.
PFAS are found in consumer products like food packaging, waterproof jackets, and paint. You may have been exposed to some this morning when you lathered up with shaving cream or slathered on moisturizing lotion. We can’t see them, smell them, taste them, or touch them, and it is practically impossible to avoid them. Which is a problem, because PFAS present a threat as insidious as it is pervasive.
Exposure to PFAS has been linked to a range of medical issues, including kidney and testicular cancers, liver damage, immune and reproductive disorders, thyroid disruption, high cholesterol, and ulcerative colitis. That’s the horrible irony at the heart of this mounting environmental and public health crisis – chemicals manufactured to keep things from sticking to your cookware or staining your couch or carpet or clothing are now sticking to you and leaving an indelible stain on your health.
“We have to stop using these toxic chemicals in products unless it’s absolutely essential,” said Anne Hulick, Connecticut director for Clean Water Action, who noted that there are some products – particularly medical equipment – where the addition of PFAS may be necessary. That’s not the case for takeout containers and pizza boxes. “We have to turn off the tap.”
That’s what Maine is doing. In July 2021, the Maine legislature enacted An Act to Stop Perfluoroalkyl and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances Pollution, which makes for great policy but cumbersome headlines. Beginning in January 2023, the state prohibited the sale of carpets, rugs, and fabrics that contain intentionally added PFAS. On Jan. 1, 2030, all products containing intentionally added PFAS will be unlawful for sale in Maine, unless it is determined to be unavoidable by their Department of Environmental Protection.
Environmental advocates in Connecticut – Hulick and Save the Sound’s Long Island Soundkeeper, Bill Lucey, among them – entered the current legislative session hoping the state would adopt a similar policy. Connecticut’s and New York’s governors both included funding for the problem in their proposed budgets. The clamor for stronger protections is only going to get louder now that a number of reports and studies have shown the prevalence of PFAS in drinking water across the country.
“I’ve talked to colleagues around the country, and what everyone is finding is the fact that it’s in our water is universally alarming, and it’s raising everyone’s level of concern,” said Hulick.
The Waterkeeper Alliance report cited expert estimates “that more than 200 million Americans are exposed to PFAS through drinking water.” If that sounds like a big number, it is – considering there are only 334 million Americans. That’s 60 percent of the U.S. population.
More than one million of them live on Long Island, where they’re exposed to at least trace levels of PFAS in their drinking water, according to New York-based environmental advocacy group Citizens Campaign for the Environment. Another is Lucey’s young son, whose elementary school found PFAS in its drinking water.
Turn off the tap, indeed.
Last year, 113 Waterkeeper groups, including Long Island Soundkeeper, participated in the first nationwide survey to test surface waters. Each Keeper collected water samples from two locations in their territory; Lucey sampled the Naugatuck River between Shelton and Seymour. Eighty-three percent of the samples tested positive for at least one PFAS compound. Including the two in Connecticut.
And the chemicals don’t just stay in the water. A study released in January by the Environmental Working Group, based on EPA data, found that the vast majority of freshwater fish in the United States are contaminated with PFAS, and that eating just one of these fish may be the equivalent of drinking PFAS water for a month and can detectably raise levels in the human body.
“That connection to water is what really resonates with people,” Hulick said. “They think, ‘I fish in those rivers. I have eaten fish that might have had high levels of PFAS. I’m taking something into my body that may be contaminated.’” That may be what finally gets everyone talking about forever chemicals. Visit savethesound.org to learn more. ■