When it comes to the major challenges facing the world today, most of us would agree that climate change, the pandemic, poverty and political unrest are at the top of the list. Few, however, would include a group of chemicals found on and in a variety of everyday items within our homes.
We should, though, because there is growing evidence that what seems benign at first glance is actually a major concern when it comes to our individual health — and they could do much more harm if we don’t further limit their use.
Scientifically, they are called per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, but they are more commonly referred to as PFAS. More ominously, they’re also known as “forever chemicals.”
They undoubtedly seemed like a miracle after their accidental creation in a lab more than 80 years ago, because it turned out they are very good at keeping water from soaking into our clothes and food from sticking to our pots and pans. Today, they’re also in our cleaning and personal care products, food packaging, carpet, pesticides and the foam used to fight fires. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recognize nearly 10,000 different types of PFAS.
They’re actually too good at their job, because they take so long to break down naturally and they accrue over time within our bodies. Because of that, there really is no amount considered safe for humans.
One recent study found that there also is no longer any place on earth where PFAS can be avoided; indeed, rainwater around the globe contains at least one type of PFAS at levels that easily exceed the U.S. safety standard.
Scientists are still getting a grasp on the specific harm these chemicals cause. There are studies indicating they increase rates of cancer and cholesterol as well as decrease fertility and our ability to fight infections like COVID-19.
Their impact in children is likely even more profound, because studies show exposure to these “forever chemicals” early in life are associated with stunted development, accelerated puberty and behavioral changes.
Last October, the federal Environmental Protection Agency announced a strategic roadmap to take many of these chemicals out of our products, our environment and, most importantly, ourselves. As the agency said, “these actions will build upon one another and lead to more enduring and protective solutions.”
Around the same time the EPA put this new roadmap in place, the Kentucky Department for Environmental Protection said it tested surface water in every major watershed in the commonwealth and found PFAS in 90 percent of its samples.
In June, the EPA announced new rounds of drinking-water health advisories that provide further guidance and said it plans to spend $1 billion of what will ultimately be $5 billion to help communities reduce PFAS in their drinking water — money that is in addition to billions of other government funds already being used to meet this goal. Later this fall, the EPA is expected to establish national PFAS drinking-water regulations.
This work follows what the United States has done in the past to address such widespread dangers as asbestos in our schools and buildings and lead in our gas, water pipes and paint.
What should give us pause is that, decades after recognizing just how destructive asbestos and lead are, we are still dealing with the problems they have caused and are still causing in places like Flint, Michigan. As difficult as this work has been, reducing our exposure to forever chemicals will be even tougher.
There are some areas where we have seen success. Some of the more dangerous PFAS are no longer in use here in the United States; and last year, Maine became the first state to ban these compounds as much as possible by 2030 while California called for PFAS to be removed from food packaging and infant and children’s products.
During this year’s legislative session, I was proud to co-sponsor a bipartisan resolution that recognized March 4th as PFAS Chemical Awareness Day, and I will continue doing what it takes to make Kentucky a leader in ridding us of these toxic man-made chemicals.
With that in mind, the University of Louisville’s Envirome Institute, the Kentucky chapter of the UNA-USA Association, the Speed Cinema and I will be hosting an event on Sunday at the cinema to raise awareness and discuss the full impact of PFAS.
This will include a screening of the 2019 movie “Dark Waters” and a panel discussion with Rob Bilott, the attorney on whose work the film is based. The event begins at 2 p.m. at the Speed Cinema located at 2035 S. Third St. in Louisville.
Our overall goal is to keep PFAS from doing more harm than they already have, and an important part of that work is making the public aware of the challenge ahead and the need to act quickly. If we want a better, safer world for our children and the generations that follow, we have no time to lose.
Rep. Nima Kulkarni, D-Louisville, can be emailed at Nima.Kulkarni@lrc.ky.gov Jamie Lynn Young, Ph.D., is assistant professor of pharmacology and toxicology at the University of Louisville School of Medicine.