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Planet Earth: Our Loving Home

Forever Chemicals: What They Are and How They Affect Our Planet

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Forever chemicals, scientifically known as per- and polyfluorinated alkyl substances or PFAS, were introduced in the 1940s and have been used widely ever since. They don’t break down in the environment, can move through soils, contaminate drinking water sources, and build up in fish-people, wildlife, and even the human body.

The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry says exposure to PFAS may lead to multiple health issues and a higher risk for testicular, kidney, liver, and pancreatic cancer, increased cholesterol levels, weakened immunity, reproductive problems, and low birth weight. PFAS are used in a staggering array of consumer products and commercial applications, including clothing, furniture, adhesives, non-stick frying pans, firefighting foams, toiletries, and even food packaging.

After decades of heavy use, PFAS are now everywhere, even in rainwater in the world’s most remote places. Not only have researchers found “forever chemicals” in rainwater, but also in our tap water.

While the federal government does not regulate the chemicals, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) warned that they pose a greater danger to human health than regulators previously thought.“Yeah, they basically fulfill the characteristics of a ticking time bomb. It’s very dangerous, and they're migrating very slowly.”

In a bipartisan vote last month, the House approved a bill that would force EPA to declare PFAS hazardous and establish a national drinking water limit requiring water systems to start filtering it out.

The great news is scientists have recently found a way to degrade ‘forever chemicals’ with simple ingredients commonly found in soap. Even though this approach doesn’t work on all PFAS compounds, the mix of soap and an organic solvent can destroy PFAS found in shampoos, fast-food wrappers, and fire-dousing foams and could help clean up contamination in thousands of sites worldwide.
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