By Jordin Metz
Graduate Student, Department of Chemistry, Rice University
The vast majority of Americans have chemicals circulating in their blood that did not exist 80 years ago. These compounds, per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), do not break down in our bodies or in the environment. They are linked to numerous health problems, including increased risk of some cancers and high cholesterol, and they can also affect the immune system. More than a dozen states have already passed laws to limit the amount of PFAS in drinking water below the national guidelines. Texas should follow their lead and pass stricter PFAS limits to actively protect the health of its citizens.
PFAS, a group of more than 4700 similar compounds, are widely used and are found in popular brands such as Teflon and Scotchgard. PFAS are extremely heat and chemical resistant, which makes them particularly useful. They repel both water and oil, are stain-resistant, and are quite nonreactive with other chemicals and heat. PFAS have been used in a wide range of compounds, including firefighting foams, nonstick cookware, food packaging, ski wax, stain protectors, waterproofing fabrics and lubricants.
While nonstick pans are generally considered safe, many other PFAS compounds are not so innocuous and are pervasive throughout the environment. Some are released from food packaging and stain-resistant carpet coatings, and they settle into the dust in our homes. Others accumulate in groundwater from contamination by chemical plants and by the use of PFAS-containing firefighting foams at airports and military bases. These compounds will never naturally degrade in the environment, thereby earning the nickname “forever chemicals” and increasing the cause for concern. The health risks of PFAS are still not fully understood; however, there is evidence of problems related to low infant birth weights, increased cholesterol, immunotoxicity, cancer, thyroid hormone disruption and liver toxicity.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has a health advisory limit on the two most common PFAS in our environment: perfluorooctanoic acid and perfluorooctanesulfonic acid — 70 parts per trillion (ppt). For context, this is approximately equivalent to 70 grains of sand in an Olympic-sized swimming pool. While these numbers are small, PFAS can have negative health effects even at such low concentrations. Many states have passed laws with more stringent restrictions than the EPA. For example, Vermont has some of the strictest laws to date, with target PFAS levels of 20 ppt in their groundwater, though they ideally want concentrations below 2 ppt. Despite these limits, more than 95% of Americans have detectable concentrations of PFAS in their blood, and more than 6 million live in areas where the drinking water concentrations are above the EPA’s lifetime health advisory limit of 70 ppt.
Given the limited yet worrisome data on human health effects — and the pervasiveness of PFAS throughout the environment, groundwater, and population — it is imperative to take legislative action to limit exposure to these compounds. Congress passed a bipartisan law in December 2019 that represents the first major congressional legislation on this topic. The National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), sponsored by Oklahoma Senator James M. Inhofe, is an annual bill that, for the first time, includes significant PFAS provisions. The bill requires governmental cleanup of PFAS contamination (particularly at military sites), phases out Department of Defense use of PFAS, increases research on the health impacts of PFAS, collects data on PFAS usage, assesses the impact on drinking water, and improves regulation. The law also requires information on where PFAS is synthesized and released into the environment to be publicly available.
While these provisions are steps in the right direction, many will take years before they are enacted and enforced. Meanwhile, state officials have the power to improve safety standards to ensure clean drinking water in Texas, particularly around military bases and airports where levels of PFAS are often higher due to the use of PFAS-containing firefighting foams. In light of the national conversation around these persistent pollutants, state and local politicians should work together to enact stricter water safety standards to protect the health of all Texans.
This blog post is part of the Baker Institute Science and Technology Policy Program’s Developing Civic Scientist Leaders project.