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Breaking Down Toxic PFAS
What PFAS are, why they’re harmful, and what we can do to protect ourselves from them.
Drinking water is one of the most common routes of exposure to PFAS.
Yipeng Ge / Getty Images
Drinking water is one of the most common routes of exposure to PFAS. PFAS have polluted the tap water of at least 16 million people in 33 states and Puerto Rico, as well as groundwater in at least 38 states.
Drinking water is one of the most common routes of exposure to PFAS. PFAS have polluted the tap water of at least 16 million people in 33 states and Puerto Rico, as well as groundwater in at least 38 states. Yipeng Ge / Getty Images

Feb. 20, 2020

Latest news On Feb. 20, Earthjustice sued the Dept. of Defense for illegally burning stockpiles of firefighting foam containing PFAS, without any environmental review.

The incineration already took place, or is taking place now, across the country. The lawsuit was filed on behalf of environmental and community groups.

Toxic chemicals known as PFAS have been in the news a lot lately due to their harmful health impacts and widespread contamination of drinking water sources across the country. PFAS can now be found in everyday products like waterproof jackets and nonstick pans. They’ve also been detected in the drinking water supplies of major cities like New York, Washington, D.C., and Chicago.

Though regulators have been aware of the PFAS crisis for some time, the federal EPA’s plan to address PFAS contamination falls far short of what is needed to protect communities.

“This is an action plan with no action,” said Suzanne Novak, an Earthjustice attorney who is working to address PFAS contamination. “It is a long list of initiating steps that EPA should have been doing for the past few years, but no concrete actions.”

Here’s a breakdown of what PFAS are, why they’re harmful, and what we can do to protect ourselves from them. (Download PDF fact sheet on PFAS.)

1. What are PFAS?

“PFAS” is short for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances. Chemicals in this class of more than 5,000 substances are found in products like nonstick pans (e.g. “Teflon”), food packaging, waterproof jackets, and carpets to repel water, grease, and stains. They’re also used in firefighting foam often used on military bases and at commercial airports. Even personal care products like waterproof mascaras and eyeliners, sunscreen, shampoo, and shaving cream can contain PFAS.

PFAS don’t easily break down, and they can persist in your body and in the environment for decades. As a result of their pervasiveness, more than 95 percent of the U.S. population has PFAS in their bodies, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

According to one senior CDC official, the presence and concentration of PFAS in U.S. drinking water presents “one of the most seminal public health challenges for the next decades.”

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Map of PFAS Contamination In the United States.
Environmental Working Group and Northeastern University
According to data analyzed by the Environmental Working Group and Northeastern University, as of March 2019, at least 610 locations in 43 states are known to be affected by PFAS contamination, including drinking water systems serving an estimated 19 million people. See interactive map.
2. What do we know about the harms associated with PFAS?
Individuals across the country are fighting for accountability, sharing their stories through social media and meeting with their elected officials to demand action.

Chemical manufacturers like DuPont and 3M have covered up evidence of the negative human and environmental impacts of PFAS since the 1960s.

But mounting research links PFAS to a wide range of health problems. Studies of the best-known PFAS, called PFOA and PFOS, show links to kidney cancer and testicular cancer, as well as endocrine disruption in humans. Scientists have also discovered unusual clusters of serious medical effects in communities with heavily PFAS-contaminated water. Many such communities are near military bases.

First-generation PFAS are so toxic that U.S. manufacturers largely phased them out by 2015, though U.S. law doesn’t prohibit companies from importing them. Now, against the advice of more than 200 international scientists, chemical companies have replaced first-generation PFAS with other chemicals in the PFAS family. New PFAS such as GenX act a lot like old PFAS. Early studies show that they are similarly dangerous.

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3. How am I exposed to PFAS?

Drinking water is one of the most common routes of exposure. PFAS have so far polluted the tap water of at least 16 million people in 33 states and Puerto Rico, as well as groundwater in at least 38 states.

PFAS contaminate water supplies through two main sources: firefighting foam and industrial discharges. For decades, the U.S. military has used firefighting foam containing PFAS in training exercises at hundreds of bases around the country. Commercial airports can also use PFAS-containing foam, though they’re no longer legally required to. A Department of Defense report released in March listed 126 military facilities where water supplies were contaminated with PFAS levels above the EPA’s current standard.

The industrial release of PFAS is another major source of water and air contamination. In 2016, researchers discovered troubling levels of GenX and other new-generation PFAS in North Carolina’s Cape Fear River. The source is a chemical manufacturing plant owned by The Chemours Company, a spin-off of DuPont. Communities in New Hampshire and elsewhere are also struggling with releases of PFAS into the air.

Finally, PFAS can accumulate in the human body through food and food packaging. A study in 2017 found PFAS in one-third of all fast food wrappers, where it can easily migrate into greasy foods.

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The Intercept, an investigative nonprofit news organization, told the stories of families in Warminster, Penn., and nearby Willow Grove, who suffered from cancers and other health issues due to contamination on the two military bases near their homes.
4. PFAS are everywhere. How do I avoid them?

Avoid items that tout “nonstick” or “waterproof” properties, as they can contain PFAS; reduce or eliminate fast food and carry-out items; and check beauty product labels for the term “fluoro,” which indicates a fluorinated chemical. Even dental floss can contain PFAS.

Consumers can also contact brands to tell them to stop using PFAS in their products. Companies including IKEA, H&M, and Crate & Barrel are already eliminating highly fluorinated chemicals like PFAS from their product lines. However, we need stricter government regulation of PFAS in order to be truly protected.

Eliminating PFAS from consumer products will reduce demand for production, which will protect our air and water as well.

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5. What are regulators doing about PFAS?

Several states are taking the lead on protecting people from PFAS. Wisconsin, for example, passed a law in February restricting the use of firefighting foam containing PFAS. Washington state will begin prohibiting PFAS in food packaging in 2022, and New York has restricted state agencies from purchasing food containers that include PFAS. (Learn more about state-based efforts.)

On the federal side, the National Defense Authorization Act for FY2020 included PFAS-related provisions that significantly restrict the use of these chemicals by the Department of Defense, a major source of industrial-scale PFAS contamination. They also expand requirements for disclosure and information-gathering related to PFAS beyond the military context. In addition, the House of Representatives, including 24 Republicans, passed a package of significant PFAS legislation in January requiring the EPA to mandate the cleanup of sites contaminated with PFOA and PFOS and require a national drinking water standard for PFAS within two years. This package has an uncertain future in the Senate.

All of these efforts are good first steps, but regulators and legislators must do more to adequately protect communities from PFAS. The EPA has known for decades about the dangers of PFAS. Yet the agency only recently jumped into action on this issue, largely due to pressure from lawmakers in states like Michigan, New York and North Carolina, where PFAS water contamination is widespread.

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Earthjustice’s donation-based model allows us to take on important environmental fights that other lawyers can’t — or won’t.

In a local tradition at Warminster Rotary's Kite Festival in Penn., kids were sprayed with foam, now understood to be laden with PFAS.
Photo courtesy of U.S. Navy
In past local tradition at Warminster Rotary's Kite Festival in Penn., kids would be sprayed with firefighting foam — now understood to be laden with PFAS.
6. What’s Earthjustice doing?

PFAS contamination is a multi-faceted problem, so we need multi-faceted solutions, including:

Ensuring the government follows the law on PFAS protections. On behalf of environmental and community groups, Earthjustice sued the Department of Defense in February over its contracts to burn millions of gallons of unused firefighting foam containing PFAS in incinerators across the country. According to government documents, PFAS burning already took place, or is taking place, in the towns of East Liverpool, Ohio; Arkadelphia and El Dorado, Arkansas; and Cohoes, New York. The contracts also authorize PFAS incineration in other locations, including Port Arthur, Texas, and Sauget, Illinois. Incineration may already be underway in those and other locations, too, but DOD has not fully responded to FOIA requests seeking a full list of incineration locations.

Pushing for stronger federal legislation to address PFAS contamination. We’ve filed comments on behalf of children, women, health, environmental and conservation organizations, in response to the EPA’s request for information on specific near-term actions that the agency should take to address PFAS. We’ve also filed comments related to how communities are notified when PFAS are released; pretreatment standards for PFAS under the Clean Water Act; and manufacturers’ applications to EPA to approve three proposed new PFAS. Read some of the comments:

Pressing for stronger implementation of state PFAS laws. In February, Earthjustice joined state legislators, community advocates, and environmental groups in calling on New York State regulators to rescind a proposed revision of public drinking water standards that weaken notification requirements and could unnecessarily delay — by years — the treatment of drinking water contaminated by PFAS.

Obtaining medical monitoring for communities impacted by PFAS contamination. In October 2018, Earthjustice attorneys successfully argued against a federal immunity defense that tried to bar residents living near military bases in southeastern Pennsylvania who were exposed to high levels of PFAS from seeking justice through the U.S. legal system. Unfortunately, a U.S. district court judge tossed the lawsuit in January, largely due to the unregulated legal status of PFAS. The lawsuit cannot move forward until federal and state regulators do their jobs and take action on these chemicals.

Earthjustice is also pushing for medical monitoring for residents of Hoosick Falls, New York, who were exposed to PFAS contamination after companies discharged PFOA into nearby groundwater and the municipal drinking water supply.