The chemicals that make your rain jacket waterproof, your cooking skillet nonstick and your couch stain-resistant have something in common — once leaked into the environment, they never break down.
That’s a quality Illinois health and environmental authorities are wrestling with as they try to develop standards to ensure the chemicals are used safely.
There are about 5,000 of these human-made chemical compounds that, thanks to their uniquely everlasting quality, gave per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, their apt nickname: forever chemicals.
Since 2021, the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency has released six state health advisories for the substances, though the declarations require no action.
“At this time, no enforceable federal or state drinking water standard, called a Maximum Contaminant Level or MCL, exists for any of the more than 5,000 known PFAS chemicals. Illinois EPA is in the process of collecting data in the PFAS Investigation Network to develop a state MCL,” the agency states on its website.
Meanwhile, the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago recently stated it will increase efforts to monitor forever chemicals once the US Environmental Protection Agency approves testing methods. The US EPA is doing a risk assessment expected to be completed by 2024.
PFAS are used in industrial and consumer products to make items nonstick, as well as resistant to oil, water and stains.
“They’re very useful, because here you have an oil- and water-repellent chemical, and at the same time, it’s very water soluble. The properties of these compounds are really quite unique,” said John Scott, a senior analytical chemist at the Illinois Sustainable Technology Center. “What makes them so useful is also what makes them so problematic.”
Through landfill leakage, sewage sludge and industrial waste, the substances have not only found their way into our water, air and soil, but they are also present in nearly every American, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The extent of how harmful forever chemicals are to both the environment and people is still unknown, although animal studies suggest the substances may affect fertility, growth and development, as well as lead to higher cholesterol levels and increased risk of kidney and testicular cancer.
Launched for widespread commercial use in the 1950s, PFAS have recently been the subject of growing concern nationwide as scientists and government officials scramble to learn more about the substances, how prevalent they are in our environment and what health risks they may pose.
Most recently, the EPA issued a proposal to designate two of the most widely used PFAS as hazardous substances under federal Superfund law. The proposal came two months after the agency declared that safe lifetime exposure of the chemicals are 0.004 and 0.02 parts per trillion — essentially making any level of exposure to a health risk.
The longevity of PFAS in the environment is mirrored when they enter the human body, taking years to slowly leave the bloodstream.
“We know they’re extremely persistent, and we know that if we keep using these things, that over time, the levels in the environment are just increasing over time,” Scott said.
He added that PFAS have been known to biomagnify in nature, meaning the higher an organism is on the food chain, the higher concentrations of PFAS are found in that organism’s system.
One of the ironies of forever chemicals is that despite their long-lasting quality, they are often used in consumer items meant for brief, single-uses such as wax paper, fast food containers and disposable plates, Scott said.
Avoiding PFAS when possible is the best solution at the individual level, Scott said, adding that while it will be difficult considering their widespread use, he thinks it will be necessary to replace the chemicals and invent a substitute that has the same properties yet breaks down whennecessary.
“People need to be aware of where these things are in the products that they purchase,” he said. “If there was a better system to label materials containing PFAS, people might be able to make a better choice. And if they’re aware of the problems and avoid them, eventually people will make their manufacturers not produce them.”
The Illinois EPA lists several ways to reduce exposure — though it notes “preventing all exposure to PFAS is not practical due to the widespread historic and current use of PFAS.”
The agency recommends the following actions:
• Use nonstick coated cookware according to manufacturer guidelines (not all nonstick coatings contain PFAS).
• Use stainless steel or cast-iron cookware in place of nonstick coated items.
• Avoid oil- and water-resistant food packaging.
• Avoid stain-resistant coatings on carpet, furniture and clothing.
• Avoid water repellents on clothing.
• Use personal care products without “PTFE” or “Fluoro” ingredients.
• Use water filters designed to remove PFAS.
• Dust household surfaces with a damp cloth regularly.
Given the prevalence of forever chemicals, the US EPA recommends individuals concerned about PFAS in their drinking water should contact their local water utility to see whether they have monitoring data for the substances or can provide any specific recommendations.
“EPA recommends that public water systems that find PFOA or PFOS in their drinking water take steps to inform customers, undertake additional sampling to assess the level, scope, and source of contamination, and examine steps to limit exposure,” the agency stated.
• Jenny Whidden is a Report For America corps member covering climate change and the environment for the Daily Herald. To help support her work with a tax-deductible donation, see https://www.reportforamerica.org/newsrooms/the-daily-herald-2/