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PFAS are toxic ‘forever chemicals’ that linger in our air, water, soil and bodies – here’s how to keep them out of your drinking water

Jessica Ray, University of Washington, The Conversation on

Published in Health & Fitness

Close to half of America’s tap water contains PFAS, or perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances. These “forever chemicals” are in thousands of products, from clothing and cosmetics to cleaning products, and are linked to cancers, liver damage, high cholesterol and asthma.

Dr. Jessica Ray, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Washington, explains what PFAS are, how scientists are trying to remove them from the environment, and what you can do to reduce the impact of PFAS on your own health.

The Conversation has collaborated with SciLine to bring you highlights from the discussion, which have been edited for brevity and clarity.

What are PFAS, and how are they used?

Jessica Ray: PFAS are a class of thousands of synthetic chemicals originally manufactured and heavily used in the 1950s. They were the active ingredient in fire suppressant foams that were used at military bases on aircraft fires.

Since then, they’ve been used in many applications and consumer products – shampoos, dental floss, nail polish. They’ve been used in waxy coatings found in food containers. They have also been applied as nonstick coatings; for example, in cookware. They’ve been used in outerwear to help with rain protection.

 

Why are PFAS called “forever chemicals”?

Jessica Ray: It is difficult for PFAS to degrade naturally in the environment or even during processes like water treatment.

How do PFAS move through the environment?

Jessica Ray: Unfortunately, PFAS like to stick to solid surfaces like soils. They can dissolve in water and enter the Earth’s atmosphere. And because PFAS can permeate air, water and soil, humans and animals can be exposed to them in a multitude of ways.

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