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  • Brynn Stevens

PFAS: Health Effects and Regulation

Background

Per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are a group of human-made chemicals known as “forever chemicals” since they do not break down naturally. These chemicals are found in a wide range of household items such as cookware, clothing, and cosmetics. Research has shown dietary intake is the prevailing PFAS exposure route. This includes drinking water, food packaging, and eating fish from water contaminated by PFAS. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has found that PFAS serum levels have been accumulating in humans for years, resulting in most of the United States population having PFAS in their bloodstreams.


Health Effects of PFAS

Research into the health effects of PFAS is still ongoing. The CDC’s Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) cites negative health effects including but not limited to increased cholesterol levels, decreased vaccine response in children, decreased infant birth weights, and increased risk of kidney or testicular cancer. The ATSDR toxicological profile references epidemiological studies confirming an association between most of these health conditions and exposure to two of the most well-studied PFAS: perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonic acid (PFOS). Workers in PFAS manufacturing facilities are disproportionately exposed to PFAS and as a result are more likely to experience the aforementioned health effects. Since PFAS contamination is so widespread, it is difficult to pinpoint other specific communities that may have been affected. Lower income communities may not have the means required for cleanup and similarly, manufacturers ignoring toxicity reports of their facilities continuously expose local residents. The Biden Administration notes that “PFAS pollution disproportionately affects disadvantaged communities” and EPA has held public meetings to discuss the environmental justice impacts of PFAS.


Policy Response

In response to these concerns, there have been increased regulatory efforts at the federal and state level. At the federal level, the EPA has published the PFAS Strategic Roadmap which, described by the Biden administration, is "a comprehensive strategy that outlines concrete actions through 2024, including steps to control PFAS at its sources, hold polluters accountable, ensure science-based decision making, and address the impacts of contamination on disadvantaged communities." In a major move, on March 14, 2023, EPA released a proposed rule introducing the first nationwide standard to regulate PFAS levels in drinking water. The regulation aims to establish Maximum Contaminant Levels (MCLs) for six commonly occurring and highly toxic PFAS.


Looking Ahead

EPA acknowledges the challenges with nationwide implementation of their new drinking water standards. They recommend water systems with PFAS levels above the MCLs institute water treatment or switch to an uncontaminated water source. Funds from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act have been earmarked to assist disadvantaged communities, small systems, or others facing cost challenges due to the new regulations.

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