What Are PFAS Chemicals, And Should I Be Freaking Out About Them?

The chemicals called PFAS have been in the news a lot lately — like the recent revelation that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency was allowing PFAS-contaminated water to be treated in Lowell and discharged into the Merrimack River, or the news that chemical giant 3M is suing the state of New Hampshire over the states strict PFAS drinking water standards.

So, what are these chemicals, anyway? And should we be worried about them? Heres what you need to know:

What are PFAS?

There are around 4,700 chemicals in the PFAS family, and they all have two things in common:

  1. Theyre all are man-made.
  2. They contain linked chains of carbon and fluorine.

The bond between carbon and fluorine atoms is one of the strongest in nature. That means that PFAS chemicals dont degrade easily; they stick around in the human body and the environment for a long time, and are very stable in water. Thats why some people call them forever chemicals.

Where do they come from?

PFAS chemicals were invented in the 1930s, and found to have some useful qualities for consumer products because they repel oil, water and grease. Companies used these chemicals in many common items, like paper food packaging (think microwave popcorn bags and pizza boxes), stain-proof rugs, waterproof clothing, some types of dental floss and nonstick cookware.

The two PFAS chemicals youre most likely to hear about are perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS). Neither of them are made in the United States any longer — ....

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