California Will Check on 'Forever Chemicals' in Drinking Water. What You Need to Know

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Chemicals called PFAS are also known as "forever chemicals" because they take thousands of years to degrade in products like pans with non-stick surfaces, such as Teflon. (Lindsey Moore/KQED)

Over 75 years, a billion-dollar industry has grown up around a group of toxic chemicals that helps keep carpets clean, makes water roll off of camping equipment, and stops your food from sticking to frying pans. There are nearly 5,000 of these chemicals in a class called PFAS, for perfluoralkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances.

We’re just beginning to understand the risk they pose. What chemists know is that the tough carbon-fluorine bonds in these “forever chemicals” make them break down very slowly in the environment -- posing a persistent risk to water supplies.

PFAS Linked to Liver and Developmental Problems  

The Centers for Disease Control has profiled PFAS, which has been studied in people and in animals. Studies have linked to it developmental problems, thyroid disease, harm to the immune system, and impaired liver function. The CDC and Environmental Protection Agency also say some of the chemicals in this class may cause cancer.

PFAS are oil, stain, grease, and water repellent, so they’re found in consumer products like ski goggles and camping gear. What people are worried about now is where the chemicals might have entered drinking water through industrial uses. There’s a firefighting foam used on airport runways because it cleans up fuel spills and oil really well, and from there the PFAS chemicals could leach into soil, and then water.

Environmental Working Group toxicologist Alexis Temkin says that human exposure can come from drinking water and certain types of food, especially seafood.

“We're now beginning to understand that it can be found in compost, which can be used on other types of vegetables, which can then take up PFAS," Temkin says. "So we know that the health hazard and the risk can come from a variety of different places.”

Under a federal program, starting a couple of decades ago, companies voluntarily phased out the older versions of these PFAS chemicals. They aren't made in the U.S. anymore, but some other newer ones are, and these newer chemicals may be less toxic, or may not be.

Thousands of Chemicals and Very Few Rules

Federal rules set a health advisory limit for drinking water at 70 parts per trillion. The CDC’s toxicology review suggests that the for some chemicals the limit should be around one-fifth of that.

Inside the Story of 1,2,3-TCP

The Environmental Protection Agency has issued an interim plan which says that the agency will continue to study PFAS for a while yet. States have been moving to take swifter action.

New Jersey made a hard limit for two PFAS chemicals, and is making companies test and clean up to that standard. It's also now a condition of real estate transactions.

So far, California has set a health advisory at 70 parts per trillion. But that doesn’t mean people here are drinking tainted water. The State Water Resources Control Board is undertaking a huge investigation of where PFAS might be, beginning with 1500 airports, wells and landfills.

Governor Gavin Newsom has now signed a law requiring water agencies to disclose when any PFAS chemicals are found in water above a level of 70 parts per trillion. The Association of California Water Agencies opposed the law, expressing concern that it might make people scared of their water without giving consumers useful information because the science remains complicated.


From Chipotle to Compost: PFAS in Takeout Containers

The nonprofit New Food Economy tested for PFAS and found it in compostable bowls from Chipotle and Sweetgreen.

The concern isn’t that one burrito bowl is going to get you sick. Since PFAS have a long life in the environment, when you put takeout bowls with trace amounts of them in compost, the potentially toxic chemicals remain dangerous wherever they go.

Last year, San Francisco banned PFAS chemicals from takeout materials -- the bowls, the plates, the spoons, all of it -- after lawsuits revealed that companies including 3M knew for four decades or more that the chemicals were toxic and accumulated in the human body.

Congress has discussed taking action to keep PFAS out of disposable food containers, but it hasn’t taken action yet.

Cleanup Is Expensive

We can clean up PFAS from water supplies, but it's costly. Water treatment plants have ways to trap the chemicals, including reverse osmosis. The problem is, treatment plants have to  dispose of the chemicals they trap, and these chemicals don't break down. It's not an easy fix. Scientists are researching how to trap the chemicals better, and how to make the chemicals break down faster and more safely.