EPA to rule on PFAS

The chemical compounds are all around you. They're on many fabrics, rugs and carpets, cooking pots and pans, outdoor gear, shampoo, shaving cream, makeup and even dental floss. Increasing numbers of states have found them seeping into water supplies.

There's growing evidence that long-term exposure to the perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl compounds, or PFAS, can be dangerous, even in tiny amounts.

The Environmental Protection Agency is looking at how to respond to a public push for stricter regulation of the chemicals, in production since the 1940s. A decision is expected soon.

At hearings around the country last year, local and state officials asked the agency to set a maximum level for PFAS in drinking water nationwide. It will take that, officials said, to stop contamination and hold polluting parties responsible.

But it's more than a U.S. problem. In Europe, Australia, Asia and elsewhere, regulators and consumers are confronting discoveries of PFAS contamination, especially around U.S. military bases, where they're used in firefighting foam.

Industries use the chemicals in coatings meant to protect consumer goods from stains, water and corrosion.

DuPont says its scientists invented the earliest form of the nonstick compound in 1938. They were impressed with how water and grease slipped off the new substance and how it seemed never to break down — winning it the name "forever compound." Various types soon were on the market, first in Teflon products. Thousands of variants have been produced since then, for a host of uses.

By the 1970s, manufacturers conceded that PFAS were building up in the bodies of employees who worked with them. Recent scientific reports have estimated that nearly all people in the U.S. have some PFAS chemicals in their blood. Studies of workers exposed on the job and people who drank contaminated water, in addition to lab analyses of animals, have pointed to ties between some PFAS types and human illness.

Industries have phased out two of the most-studied versions of PFAS. Manufacturers say newer forms are safer and don't remain in the human body as long as older types. Some researchers say too little is known about them to be sure of that.

A public health study between 2005 and 2013 found "probable links" between high levels of PFOA in the body and excessive cholesterol levels, ulcerative colitis, thyroid disease, testicular and kidney cancer, and problems in pregnancies.

EPA-mandated testing of about 5,000 of the roughly 150,000 public water systems in the U.S. that was completed in 2016 found dangerous levels of the same two PFAS compounds in 66 systems. Local and state testing since then has identified high levels in scores of additional systems.

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