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US plans to tackle toxic, widespread ‘PFAS’ chemicals

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"Forever chemicals" PFAs can be found in water, air, food, and packaging such as this pictured in a file image./AFP
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Oct 19, 2021 - 03:22 AM

WASHINGTON — Commonly known as “forever chemicals,” PFAs can be found in water, air, food, packaging or even in shampoo or makeup, but on Monday the United States unveiled plans to tackle these ubiquitous and potentially harmful substances.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) published a three-year plan aimed at setting maximum thresholds in drinking water for the chemicals, technically called per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS.

There are several thousand types of PFAS, but their common characteristics is that they disintegrate extremely slowly, earning them the nickname “forever chemicals.”

Once ingested, they accumulate in the body. According to some studies, exposure to PFAS can lead to problems with fertility, developmental delays in children, increased risks of obesity or certain cancers (prostate, kidney and testicular), an increase in cholesterol levels or even a decrease in the immune response to certain infections or after a vaccine.

The EPA plans to designate certain PFAS as “hazardous substances” and will demand that manufacturers who produce them provide information on their toxicity.

“For far too long, families across America – especially those in underserved communities – have suffered from PFAS in their water, their air, or in the land their children play on,” said EPA Administrator Michael Regan.

“This comprehensive, national PFAS strategy will deliver protections to people who are hurting, by advancing bold and concrete actions that address the full lifecycle of these chemicals.”

The roadmap takes a three-pronged approach: increase research on PFAS, act to limit their dissemination in the environment and accelerate the clean-up of contaminated sites.

“Thousands of communities have already detected these toxic forever chemicals in their water and PFAS have been confirmed at nearly 400 military installations,” said the Environmental Working Group, which estimated that “more than 200 million Americans are drinking water contaminated with PFAS.”

While welcoming the new measures, the EWG lamented the fact that they come after decades of delays.

“The EPA has known of the risks posed by PFAS since at least 1998 but failed to act,” it said in a statement.

PFAS can notably be found in food packaging, such as pizza boxes, but also in certain cleaning products, paints, varnishes or coatings, according to the EPA.

They can also be found in fish from contaminated water, or in dairy products, due to the exposure of livestock to these products on certain sites.

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