The problem with PFAS

The problem with PFAS

What are PFAS or “forever chemicals”? 

Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are probably the most toxic chemicals ever produced. They’ve been nicknamed “forever chemicals” or “teflon” because they do not break down in the environment, or in the human body. Unfortunately they are ubiquitous. About 15,000 variants of these synthetic chemicals are being produced and they are found in over 3,000 consumer products 

Many public health advocates, environmental groups, researchers and EPA whistleblowing employees consider the EPA a handmaiden to the chemical industry. So when EPA came out in 2022 with drinking water guidelines that said essentially no safe level exists for the two main categories of forever chemicals (.02 parts per trillion (ppt) and .004 ppt, which are below the level of detection technology), it should have sent shock waves through every state government. Eleven states have since developed their own drinking water standards, and 30 states have filed suit against PFAS manufacturers. 

In April, 2024, the Environmental Protection Agency finalized unprecedented new limits on the toxic “forever chemicals” as a way to tackle drinking water contamination. The proposal targets six PFAS – PFOA, PFOS, GenX, PFBS, PFNA and PFHxS. These are among the most protective health limits on PFAS in drinking water in the world, according to an Environmental Working Group article, but that’s still not enough protection.

Why they’re bad for your health:

Virtually all of us have PFAS in our blood, including newborns, and they have been linked to 55 different diseases,including cancer and a long list of other diseases that involve immunosuppression, endocrine disruption, impaired fetal development, developmental delays in children, and reproductive toxicity. They are probably the most toxic industrial chemicals produced, and should be phased out entirely.

I wrote about PFAS in my recent Salt Lake Tribune op-ed, “Recently the CDC made an unprecedented recommendation that physicians consider testing their patients for blood levels of forever chemicals. That they have never made any such recommendation for any other toxic substances speaks volumes. Because there is no treatment for PFAS contamination, their purpose was to see if some communities have unidentified PFAS sources, and if some patients have specific exposures that can be eliminated.

Where are they found? 

PFAS are used in a laundry-list of household products and every day retail items. They’re used in clothing, shoes, cookware, furniture, cosmetics, and even baby products. Find a list of PFAS free products and brands here.

What is dangerous PFAS – Perfluoroalkyl and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances – and where is it found? PFAS are dangerous synthetic organofluorine chemical compounds

The previous recommendations from the EPA concluded that essentially there is no safe level of exposure to PFAS chemicals. And it is a gigantic pubic health hazard because there are about 14,000 different varieties of them, they are in thousands of consumer goods, like water resistant clothing, stain resistant carpet, non-stick cookware, dental floss, and many others, virtually all of us have them in our bodies.

PFAS are found in nearly half of Americans’ tap water, and many Utah residents are included in that number. In 2024, two Salt Lake City wells tested positive for PFAS, as well as Park City’s drinking water

A large concern for Northern Utah residents is that PFAS are used in many waxes used on skis. Park City and many other local resorts have banned the hazardous chemical in ski wax, but out of state and international visitors may still carry the wax. When they ski, it inevitably gets in the snow, which then melts or seeps into the ground and can contaminate drinking water, as it seems it has in Park City. 

The new EPA regulations are lower than the levels of PFAS that have been found in both the SLC wells, and Park City drinking water, meaning both locations will have to spend millions to reduce the levels. 

Find Dr. Brian Moench’s recent Tribune op-ed on PFAS chemicals here, or read below ↓

Opinion: Poisonous ‘forever’ chemicals are likely in the Great Salt Lake. They should be banned.

This week The Tribune ran a front-page story on contamination of Wasatch Front drinking water with PFAS (otherwise known as “forever” chemicals) from ski wax. Forever chemicals are also nicknamed “terminator” compounds because they are virtually indestructible. But that property also makes them chemicals from hell, probably the most toxic chemicals ever produced. But there is much more to the story of PFAS in Utah that could be a “forever” nightmare.

In 2005, chemical giant DuPont was fined $16.5 million, the largest in EPA history, for a 40 year-long cover up of deadly health hazards from their flagship product, a family of forever chemicals marketed under the name Teflon. The settlement included DuPont voluntarily agreeing to phase out manufacturing PFAS over the next nine years. Given that Teflon sales that year were $1 billion, and some of Teflon’s health consequences were fatal, that settlement reeked of as much justice as offering your local ax murderer a deal where he slows down his murder spree over nine years, agrees to start using a different ax and pays a $50 fine.

But EPA still permits about 15,000 variations of forever chemicals to be produced by 12 other companies. For decades they have been found in over 3,000 common products. Virtually all of us have PFAS in our blood, including newborns. Dupont’s own research concluded there was no safe level of exposure to forever chemicals, and 35 different studies have linked them to 55 different diseases.

Recently the CDC made an unprecedented recommendation that physicians consider testing their patients for blood levels of forever chemicals. That they have never made any such recommendation for any other toxic substances speaks volumes. Because there is no treatment for PFAS contamination, their purpose was to see if some communities have unidentified PFAS sources, and if some patients have specific exposures that can be eliminated.

Many public health advocates, environmental groups, researchers and EPA whistleblowing employees, consider the EPA a handmaiden to the chemical industry. So when EPA came out in 2022 with drinking water guidelines that said essentially no safe level exists for the two main categories of forever chemicals (.02 parts per trillion (ppt) and .004 ppt, which are below the level of detection technology), it should have sent shock waves through every state government. Eleven states then developed their own drinking water standards, and 30 states have filed suit against PFAS manufacturers.

Utah has done neither despite the fact that Utah has more reason to worry than most other states.

After the Trump EPA refused to act, last week the Biden EPA set drinking water standards at 4 ppt, but only because that is the limit of most labs’ ability to detect the toxins. That means drinking water originating from Utah’s ski slopes, and likely contaminated with PFAS as suggested in the Tribune article, could be given a clean bill of health and still be between 200 times and 1,000 times more contaminated than what EPA considers safe.

Forever chemicals add a new dimension to the many toxins we can assume are in dust from a dried-up Great Salt Lake. Municipal sewage contains PFAS, pharmaceutical metabolites, personal care chemicals, toxic cleaning chemicals and that discharge water from Wasatch Front treatment plants ends up in Great Salt Lake. In fact, there are higher concentrations of PFAS in discharge water than in the original sewage.

Whenever profitable chemicals are judged too dangerous, chemical manufacturers follow a well-worn path that includes introducing copycat chemicals that are just different enough to qualify as “new,” but often just as dangerous. The state of Maine’s definition of forever chemicals is broader than EPA’s and includes these copycat chemicals. Using that definition, an analysis found that 1,400 pesticides contained forever chemicals. As a result, Maine will phase in a ban on any pesticides that contain any of them.

The Great Salt Lake ecosystem is being showered with herbicides and insecticides that almost certainly would be banned in Maine.

There is plenty of blame to go around: EPA’s default approach that assumes chemicals are “safe” until proven guilty and their cozy relationship with the chemical industry, Utah’s political leaders’ misplaced priorities and a natural human resistance to new information if it demands changes in behavior. But PFAS in all its forms is poison and should be banned, removed from drinking water and added to the long list of reasons to save Great Salt Lake.

-Dr. Brian Moench