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Scientists Dig Into Hard Questions About The Fluorinated Pollutants Known As PFAS

Scientists are ramping up research on the possible health effects of a large group of common but little-understood chemicals used in water-resistant clothing, stain-resistant furniture, nonstick cookware and many other consumer products.


Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances are generally referred to by their plural acronym, PFAS. PFAS are resistant to water, oil and heat, and their use has expanded rapidly since they were developed by companies in the mid-20th century. Today, PFAS' nonstick qualities make them useful in products as diverse as food wrappers, umbrellas, tents, carpets and firefighting foam. The chemicals are also used in the manufacture of plastic and rubber and in insulation for wiring.


In short, they are all around us. And as a result, they've found their way into the soil and, especially in some regions, into our drinking water.


"We're finding them contaminating many rivers, many lakes, many drinking water supplies," says Linda Birnbaum, director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and the National Toxicology Program. "And we're finding them not only in the environment, but we're finding them in people."

“We're finding them contaminating many rivers, many lakes, many drinking water supplies," says Linda Birnbaum, director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and the National Toxicology Program. "And we're finding them not only in the environment, but we're finding them in people.”

"Essentially everyone has these compounds in our blood," she explains.


That's in part because PFAS don't break down easily — a quality that has earned them the nickname "forever chemicals." Some varieties have been found to stick around in the human body for years, if not decades. Others accumulate in soil or water, creating a continuous source of exposure.


Despite their ubiquity, however, scientists know relatively little about the health effects of most types of PFAS.

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