According to a May 2023 study, drinking water in many parts of the U.S., especially near military bases, still contains high levels of PFAS in spite of recent actions by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to cap exposure.

The study was conducted by the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. It comes on the heels of new federal limits on synthetic chemicals in drinking water set by the EPA in March. The limits were expected to prevent serious illnesses and save thousands of lives across the country. 

These human-made chemicals, called PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, are also known as forever chemicals. PFAS are linked to several health conditions, including an increased risk of certain cancers, thyroid disease and negative effects on the immune system and reproduction.

Risks Are Higher Near Military Bases

The Harvard study shows that more contaminated water is found in cities near military bases because retardant foams used for training drills and to fight fires contain PFAS. Aqueous film forming foam, or AFFF, is known to be one of the biggest sources of water contamination. People have filed AFFF lawsuits after being exposed to the product and later developing cancer or other diseases. 

There are two types of PFAS chemicals: a precursor form and a terminal form. Terminal PFAS do not degrade under normal conditions. Precursor PFAS are transformed into terminal compounds via environmental and biological processes. 

Experts say without properly removing both types of PFAS from drinking water in the proximity of about 300 military facilities across the country, the problem could continue for centuries. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs is creating a registry for members of the military who may have been exposed to PFAS during their service. Veterans can also file a disability claim for health conditions that may have been caused by PFAS exposure.

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What Are Forever Chemicals?

Since the 1940s, there have been about 5,000 types of human-made forever chemicals produced. Most are used in industrial processes and commercial products. Some controversial PFAS are no longer made in the United States, but harmful products containing the chemicals may still be imported into the country. 

Since they take such a long time to break down and can accumulate over time, older PFAS are still being found nearly everywhere. PFAS are regularly found in the soil, in bodies of water and in drinking water across the country. According to the Environmental Working Group, the drinking water of 16 million Americans in 33 states is contaminated with at least one type of PFAS. 

How to Avoid Forever Chemicals

PFAS chemicals are found in many places other than drinking water, including food packaging, cookware, clothing, cosmetics and more. No one can avoid PFAS entirely, but there are steps that can be taken to lessen exposure. 

Using a product once isn’t likely to be harmful. PFAS builds up in the body over time because the chemicals are so common. Experts suggest avoiding three main sources of PFAS:

Nonstick Cookware. All cookware with nonstick properties contains some type of PFAS. Lower your exposure by using glass, stainless steel, cast iron and ceramic pots and pans instead. Avoid any nonstick cookware that is 10 years old or more. 

Greaseproof Food Packaging. This includes takeout containers, pizza boxes and microwave popcorn bags. PFAS are used in these items to minimize grease stains. Always remove food from takeout containers as soon as possible. Also, avoid reheating food in takeout containers. This includes so-called compostable bowls and plates without the Biodegradable Products Institute logo.

Drinking Water. Use a water filter, especially if you live in a location where PFAS are known or suspected to be present. Buy an NSF-certified filter that can remove high levels of PFAS.

Also avoid textiles that have stain proof and waterproof qualities, even if they claim to be PFAS-free. That includes upholstered furniture, carpeting, jackets and hiking boots.