What is PFAS and why does it concern me?

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HEALTH

By Michelle Cassell
Managing Editor 

TLR reported last week that Orange Water and Sewer Authority (OWASA) plans to increase monthly rates by $12.32 starting Oct. 1. More than half of the increase would be spent removing toxic “forever chemicals” from the local water supply. What are “forever chemicals,” and why should we be concerned about them?

Manufacturers have used per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) since the 1950s. PFAS makes clothes stain-resistant, creates nonstick cookware, and improves the power of firefighting foam. Unfortunately, PFAS molecules are long, durable chains of carbon and fluorine that don’t degrade easily and accumulate in human and animal bodies. PFAS have been linked to cancer, developmental damage in children, and harm to the human liver and heart.

PFAS has been the focus of the EPA for some time.  According to the EPA’s website:

  • Because of their widespread use and persistence in the environment, many PFAS are found in the blood of people and animals worldwide and are present at low levels in the environment and in various food products..
  • PFAS are found in water, air, fish, and soil worldwide.
  • Scientific studies have shown that exposure to some PFAS in the environment may be linked to harmful health effects in humans and animals.

On April 10, 2024, the EPA announced the final National Primary Drinking Water Regulation (NPDWR) for six PFAS.  OWASA’s representatives said the utility has five years to meet the new environmental standards by cleaning PFAS out of the water supply.

But drinking water isn’t the only issue when it comes to PFAS.  Again, according to the EPA: “There are likely thousands of PFAS that are currently present in the United States. Each of these chemicals has different properties and may be used for different purposes or may simply be present as unintended byproducts of certain manufacturing or other processes. The toxicity of the chemicals varies, and people may be exposed to each chemical in different ways, in varying amounts, and/or with different mixtures.”

In addition to the EPA, many other public and private sector organizations are conducting PFAS-related research. 

The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), which is part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in the federal Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), is collaborating with the EPA on a wide range of research on human exposure to PFAS.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) studies the human health effects of exposure to PFAS in drinking water.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is conducting work to assess PFAS issues related to the general food supply, food packaging, and cosmetics.

The Department of Defense’s Strategic Environmental Research and Development Program is sponsoring several projects aimed at developing a better understanding of: (1) the occurrence, fate, and transport of PFAS, (2) remedial treatment options, (3) ecotoxicity at sites impacted by firefighting foam, and (4) next-generation PFAS-free foams.

The NC Department of Environmental Quality has issued a fact sheet on PFAS.  In addition to background information, it includes steps you can take to limit your exposure to PFAS, including drinking water (which OWASA is addressing), reading consumer product labels and avoiding using those with PFAS, and monitoring fish advisories. 

Freshwater fish are especially susceptible to PFAS contamination. A study by Environmental Working Group scientists found that consuming just a single serving of freshwater fish per year could be equivalent to consuming a month of drinking water laced with the “forever chemical.”  Nutritionists recommend having fish in your diet.  But, if you prefer freshwater fish, stay informed of advisories for waters the fish come from.

Earthjustice is a nonprofit organization “dedicated to protecting people’s health, preserving magnificent places and wildlife, advancing clean energy, and combating climate change.”  In 2021, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency unveiled a roadmap listing how it would curtail PFAS contamination in the United States. Earthjustice is tracking EPA’s promised actions.

TLR will continue to follow up on this important health issue.


Michelle Cassell is a seasoned reporter who has covered everything from crime to hurricanes and local politics to human interest over the course of 35 years. As managing editor, she hopes to encourage writers of a wide range of backgrounds and interests in TLR’s coverage of Southern Orange County news. 
This reporter can be reached at Info@TheLocalReporter.press

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