To protect our health and environment, limit use of toxic PFAS ‘forever chemicals’

PFAS ‘forever chemicals’ are everywhere, including in some of our drinking water and in cosmetics, and 97% of people carry PFAS in their blood. Illinois legislators are working on proposals to limit PFAS use.

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A worker, at left, tends to a customer at a cosmetics shop on Thursday in 2021 in Los Angeles.

A worker, at left, tends to a customer at a cosmetics shop in 2021 in Los Angeles. More state legislatures are considering banning the sale of cosmetics and other consumer products that contain the toxic industrial compounds called PFAS.

Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP

It’s time to take the “forever” out of so-called “forever chemicals” in the environment.

Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, also called PFAS, have a wide variety of uses, but they don’t break down in the environment, which is why they are called forever chemicals.

They get into drinking water and are so pervasive that 97% of people carry PFAS in their blood. So do animals all over the world. In 2021, measurable levels of forever chemicals were found in more than 100 drinking water systems across Illinois, including some in the Chicago area.

The chemicals, which have been around for decades, are associated with cancer of the kidneys and testicles, thyroid disease, low birth weight, pregnancy-related hypertension, damage to the liver and immune system, developmental harm and other health risks, although the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says the health effects of low environmental levels are uncertain.

Editorial

Editorial

Among the consumer, commercial and industrial products containing PFAS are shampoo, makeup, deodorant, sunscreen, hair dyes, nonstick pans, food packaging, stain-resistant clothing, waterproof products, polishes, waxes and firefighting foam. With so many uses, it’s easy for PFAS to get into drinking water, soil and air.

It’s time to do whatever is possible to keep so many PFAS from getting into the environment. If nothing is done, they will just keep accumulating.

Last month, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency proposed raising national drinking water standards for six of the thousands of PFAS compounds, which means water systems with high levels must find a way to remove PFAS. The new permissible standard for those six forever chemicals will be 4 parts per trillion, compared with the previous standard of 70 parts per trillion.

That’s a step forward. But nearly half of the forever chemicals in drinking water samples are not monitored by the U.S. EPA, according to a new peer-reviewed analysis by the Natural Resources Defense Council and community members in 16 states.

And as state House Majority Leader Robyn Gabel, D-Evanston, told us, “Part of the problem is that as different [forever chemicals] have been banned, what they did is make new ones.”

There is progress on the scientific front. Researchers at the Colorado School of Mines have invented a process they say will destroy PFAS collected by public water systems as they filter out the chemicals. And at Northwestern University, researchers recently published a study showing that PFAS can be destroyed using two common chemicals.

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But filtering PFAS out of the environment so they can be destroyed remains a costly proposition. Municipal water systems face a tab estimated in the billions of dollars if forever chemicals keep being released, even though Illinois received millions of federal dollars in 2021 to mitigate PFAS contamination.

Instead, environmental policies should focus on keeping PFAS from getting into the environment in the first place. California, Colorado and Maryland have banned cosmetics containing PFAS, which makes sense because cosmetics are not a critical need compared with, say, medical implants, such as stents, surgical meshes and drugs, including some antibiotics.

Nine PFAS-related bills were introduced in the Illinois Legislature this session, including one that would ban cosmetics containing PFAS, but some were merged. A subject matter hearing on a bill that already has unanimously passed the House is scheduled for Wednesday in the Illinois Senate.

Among other measures, it would adopt any forthcoming U.S. EPA standards for dealing with PFAS and create a take-back program for firefighting foam that contains forever chemicals, said Gabel, who co-sponsored the bill in the House.

The Metropolitan Water Reclamation District, meanwhile, has passed an ordinance pushing for PFAS manufacturers to reimburse public utilities for the cost of removing PFAS.

In December, the company 3M said it hoped to stop marketing PFAS altogether by 2025, but that won’t solve the problem if businesses just turn to other suppliers.

PFAS don’t need to be in food packaging, cookware or other items from which people might easily ingest them, or in cosmetics. Lawmakers can improve everyone’s health by limiting the use of forever chemicals.

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