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The Danger of Forever Chemicals

Written by: Erin Yoo

What started out as a modern scientific milestone and miracle is now a cause for concern, with some labeling it a crisis. They are currently present in 99% of Americans, causing serious health problems for many (“The ‘Forever Chemicals’”; Perkins, 2020). Say hello to PFAS, or the “forever chemicals” (Perkins, 2020).

Overview of Forever Chemicals

PFAS (perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances) is not just a singular, omnipresent compound. Instead, it is a class of almost 5,000 different fluorinated compounds, the most common being PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid or C8) and PFOS (perfluorooctane sulfonate), and only a few of which have been studied (American Cancer Society, 2020; Perkins, 2020; Ziff, 2020). In fact, many of these compounds do not have proper toxicological data on them, making it harder for scientists to understand exactly how they affect us and the world we live in—though it is commonly accepted that they are harmful (Isaacs-Thomas, 2020). As a result, there are no federal limits on the levels of PFAS that are allowed to be in drinking water, despite the risks they may pose to human health and the environment (Sneed, 2021).

The name “forever chemical” comes from the thousands and thousands of years these substances stay in the environment due to the fact that they do not break down naturally. Even modern science has yet to discover a way to destroy them (Sneed, 2021). The reason for their resilience is that PFAS have an extremely strong carbon-fluorine bond—one of the strongest to exist (Ginty, 2020). This bond also allows PFAS to repel water and resist stains, which makes them very appealing to industrial production companies (Ginty, 2020). At the same time, these chemicals are highly soluble in water due to their hydrophilic functional groups, as seen in Figure 1, which enables them to move quickly throughout the environment (Perkins, 2020; Norges Geotekniske Institutt). Thus, forever chemical concentrations often build up in large amounts in the natural environment, especially in water. The only way they become less of a problem is by dispersing naturally on their own, which cannot be relied on in terms of human and environmental health (Perkins, 2020).

Figure 1

Water and fat

Source: Norges Geotekniske Institutt (Norwegian Geotechnical Institute)

History of Forever Chemicals

PFAS were first created in the early twentieth century, specifically in the 1930s. DuPont, a mammoth chemical company, was the first to use forever chemicals to develop consumer products by creating nonstick cooking tools that were covered in a Teflon surface in 1946 (Ziff, 2020). Teflon contains PFOA, one of the two most common forever chemicals, meaning many problems can arise from its production and use. Naturally, with rises in consumerism and plastic production, Teflon became one of the biggest causes of the extremely high PFAS concentration levels seen today in human bloodstreams, breast milk, wildlife, and more. 3M, a separate corporation, created Scotchgard which contained PFOS, the other most widespread forever chemical (“The ‘Forever Chemicals’”).

Leaked reports show that both companies and the government knew of the dangers of the compounds, but they did not do anything about it. 3M studies from the 1950s showed that PFAS could pollute human blood, and 3M and DuPont animal studies in the ‘60s showed that PFAS were in fact health hazards (“The ‘Forever Chemicals’”). Two decades later, both companies also found that PFAS were linked to cancer (“The ‘Forever Chemicals’”). But, instead of reporting these findings, the companies kept these studies and many others secret, causing backlash from environmental groups that demanded the companies be held accountable. A brief timeline of coverups by chemical companies can be seen in Figure 2 below.

Figure 2

Source: Environmental Working Group

Eventually, as the hazardous nature of the molecules became more widely known, PFOA and PFOS were prohibited in U.S. production factories after the government was pressured to act by the Environmental Protection Agency (“The ‘Forever Chemicals’”). In order to make these compounds “safer,” they were replaced with shorter carbon-chain compounds even though evidence shows that this alternative may still be dangerous. For example, lab animals grew cancerous cells when treated with the new compounds (“The ‘Forever Chemicals’”; Ginty, 2020). In fact, a study from Auburn University in 2019 found that the new structures could make the chemicals even more dangerous than before (“The ‘Forever Chemicals’”).

Today, these seemingly immortal compounds are found in a variety of consumer products including kitchenware, waterproof gear, dental floss, eyeliner, smartphones, paper and cardboard food packaging like popcorn wrappers and pizza boxes, stain-resistant furniture and carpeting, sealant tape, floor wax, firefighting foam, and many other textiles, personal care products, and electronics (Ginty, 2020; Perkins, 2020; “PFAS”; Ziff, 2020). They can spread during manufacturing and or leak from the products themselves into the water and air. They can also travel long distances due to their durability (“PFAS”). One of the main ways PFAS spread into human bodies is through drinking water since water treatment facilities are not able to easily remove forever chemicals (“PFAS”).

The Spread

The problem is worse than many scientists originally thought. Tests show alarming levels of forever chemicals in the rain, food, and even fertilizer coming from sewage (Perkins, 2020). From 2019 to 2020 alone, 700 sites in the U.S. were found to contain PFAS in their water (Perkins, 2020). Over 110 million people may be consuming PFAS-contaminated water, including populations in thirty-four major U.S. cities (Perkins, 2020). Some experts even estimate that nearly every source of surface water in the U.S. is contaminated.

The spread of PFAS is exacerbated by the lack of action taken, as the production of these chemicals continues without many changes (Perkins, 2020). In fact, the federal U.S. government and chemical companies have denied the idea that PFAS cause health problems, even though a mountain of academic and even government research shows that that is not true (Perkins, 2020). In 2012, the EPA found that six diseases in West Virginia were likely linked to high concentrations of PFAS in drinking water in the largest epidemiological study ever conducted (Perkins, 2020).

Additionally, drinking water in over forty locations in thirty-one states was sampled and analyzed for 30 different PFAS chemicals from May to December of 2019. Many of the samples had around six or seven different PFAS chemicals present in the water. Furthermore, for 34 of the locations where PFAS contamination was found, the contamination had not been reported to the public by the EPA or state agencies so many people may not be aware of the quality of their drinking and cleaning water (Isaacs-Thomas, 2020). Estimates show that over 200 million people—over 50% of Americans—drink water that has PFOA and PFOS at high concentrations of 1 part per trillion (ppt) or more (Sneed, 2021). A CDC National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey also supports the fact that PFAS are exceedingly widespread; it found that PFAS were present in breast milk, umbilical cord blood, and or bloodstreams of 98% of participants (Ginty, 2020). Yet, the minimal risk level of forever chemicals has not been lowered by the federal government (Perkins, 2020). Currently, the minimal risk level is set at 70ppt though studies show that even 1ppt is dangerous (Sneed, 2021).

This is not surprising knowing that since the creation of the first forever chemicals, 475 industry facilities may have been releasing PFAS into the environment without restriction (“The ‘Forever Chemicals’”). For example, in 2002, a plant in New Hampshire producing weatherproof fabric caused PFAS concentrations to skyrocket to up to 70,000 ppt in a 65-mile area surrounding the plant (Perkins, 2020). The Department of Defense has also used PFAS-containing firefighting foam for decades, causing health problems for communities located near military bases (“The ‘Forever Chemicals’”). Forever chemicals also leak into groundwater from airports that use firefighting foam and from waste-disposal sites (Sneed, 2021). PFAS have spread so far that they can be found in human blood—even in newborns, breast milk, and wildlife all around the world (“PFAS”). And yes, “all around the world” really does mean all around the world, including the Arctic.

With the lack of official government action, other organizations have taken it upon themselves to address the spread of forever chemicals. For instance, the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit advocacy group, and the Social Science Health and Environmental Health Research Institute track PFAS contamination based on federal and state reports (“The ‘Forever Chemicals’”). Their current tracker reports that PFAS are present in the drinking water systems of nineteen million people in forty-nine U.S. states. Of these, Michigan is the state with the highest amounts of PFAS-contaminated sites, but it has also done some of the most extensive tests and research on PFAS (“The ‘Forever Chemicals’”).

Effects on Human Health and the Environment

With the combination of immortality and pervasiveness, forever chemicals can cause major environmental issues and health problems for animals, including humans. People exposed to PFAS can develop cancer, autoimmune disorders, cardiovascular issues, kidney disease, thyroid disorders, endocrine disorders, liver disease, high cholesterol, Parkinson’s disease, bone disease, reproductive problems, and or developmental disorders (Perkins, 2020). Further, children are more susceptible to the harmful effects of forever chemicals because their bodies are more vulnerable to their toxicity (Ginty, 2020; Perkins, 2020). As an example, PFOA and PFOS can cause low birth weight and weakened immunity in children (“PFAS”; Ziff, 2020)

 Moreover, the exact effect of consuming and coming in contact with a combination of multiple different types of PFAS is not known (Isaacs-Thomas, 2020). However, if exposure to one forever chemical can cause this wide range of disorders and illnesses, consuming a multitude of forever chemicals is likely even worse. Due to these severe health consequences, the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease recommended lowering the minimal risk level for PFAS from 70ppt to 12ppt in 2017. But, as stated above, the minimal risk level has not changed (Perkins, 2020). In addition, for however long forever chemicals stay in human bodies, they stay even longer in the environment, causing health problems for wildlife (Ziff, 2020).


One solution to address the spread of PFAS is to prevent its production and consumption as well as the use of PFAS-containing objects. As of now, some states have banned products that contain PFAS including Washington, New York, and New Hampshire (Perkins, 2020). As well, Michigan and New Jersey lowered the accepted levels of some PFAS in drinking water (Perkins, 2020). Additionally, the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants aims to restrict and eliminate the production of PFOS and PFOA, though these solutions often only address two out of the thousands of forever chemicals (“PFAS”). Overall, governments around the world need to lower and enforce the legal limit of PFAS levels in tap water as well as other consumer products (“The ‘Forever Chemicals’”).

Everyday people can also contribute by avoiding the use of non-stick cooking tools, cooking homemade food instead of fast-food or take-out, checking for PFAS/PFC free labels in clothes, refraining from buying cosmetic products that contain “fluoro” chemicals or PTFE, avoiding dental floss with PTFE coating, and more (“PFAS”). They can also ask their local water providers and manufacturers for data on PFAS (note that PFAS chemicals are often not listed on product labels), or ask their provider and state to start monitoring for PFAS chemicals (Ginty, 2020). If water is found to be contaminated, they can then ask the provider and state to install treatments (Ginty, 2020). Still, although these steps are necessary, banning PFAS or reducing their consumption and use would not be enough.

Buildup already present in the environment needs to be cleaned up, which is estimated to cost $300 million and will be extremely hard to carry out (Ziff, 2020). In fact, it is impossible to remove PFAS from the ocean (“PFAS”). Forever chemicals will continue to be present in the environment and in humans for decades, even if the emissions of PFAS stopped today (“PFAS”). Yet, the work still needs to be done. The initiative still needs to be taken because if not, forever chemicals will continue accumulating in our waters, skies, and bodies.

References and Sources

American Cancer Society. (2020, March 4). Perfluorooctanoic Acid (PFOA), Teflon, and Related Chemicals.

The ‘Forever Chemicals’ in 99% of Americans. Retrieved from

Ginty, Molly M. (2020, January 7). “Forever Chemicals” Called PFAS Show Up in Your Food, Clothes, and Home. NRDC.

Isaacs-Thomas, Isabella. (2020, January 22). ‘Forever chemicals’ found in drinking water in dozens of cities. PBS.

Norges Geotekniske Institutt. Reducing negative impact of PFAS. NGI.

Perkins, Tom. (2020, February 3). The ‘forever chemicals’ fueling a public health crisis in drinking water. The Guardian.

PFAS – the ‘Forever Chemicals’. Retrieved from

Sneed, Annie. (2021, January 22). Forever Chemicals Are Widespread in U.S. Drinking Water. Scientific American.,a%20senior%20scientist%20at%20EWG

Ziff, Amy. (2020, April 27). Forever Chemicals: What Do They Do to Us? What Are We Doing About Them?  Moms Clean Air Force.

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