A Toxin In Every Household
© wenping wang, Unsplash
When was the last time you looked around your kitchen or bathroom for chemicals that are toxic to your health? In many households, those chemicals don’t just come in the form of liquid products like pesticides or bleach. They often can be found in the most common items, like frying pans used to cook up a morning egg, or in that popcorn bag heating up in the microwave. That’s because a class of highly toxic, long-lasting chemicals called perfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) has become ubiquitous in American products.
PFAS have been used in U.S. households since the 1950s, when it was first marketed in Teflon cookware by DuPont. Today, PFAS are added not just to nonstick pans, but also to water-resistant clothing, grease-repelling fast-food wrappers, stain-proof carpets, and other products. Its unusual resistance to degradation is what makes PFAS so damaging to human health and the environment: Decades of study have shown that accumulation of PFAS in the bloodstream can cause various cancers and birth defects. Yet the Trump administration is reluctant to make the dangers of PFAS, and their common use, widely known to the American public.
In January, the Trump administration tried to suppress a report about PFAS that was conducted by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (a division of the EPA)—the latest instance of the administration’s predilection for scientific censorship. An internal aid stated that public knowledge of PFAS toxicity and their use in consumer goods would create “a public relations disaster.” Six months later, in June, the ATSDR released the report, which conclusively links PFAS to a host of harmful side effects and recommends lowering the EPA’s current nonenforceable risk level to 12 parts per trillion, down from 70 ppt (about the size of a drop of water in an Olympic pool).
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Alison Cagle is a 2018 Sierra Editorial Fellow.