Tom Kennedy learned about the long-term contamination of his family’s drinking water about two months after he was told that his breast cancer had metastasized to his brain and was terminal.
The troubles tainting his tap: per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), a broad category of chemicals invented in the mid-1900s to add desirable properties such as stain-proofing and anti-sticking to shoes, cookware and other everyday objects.
Manufacturers in Fayetteville, North Carolina, had been discharging them into the Cape Fear River – a regional drinking water source – for decades.
“I was furious,” says Kennedy, who lives in nearby Wilmington. “I made the connection pretty quickly that PFAS likely contributed to my condition. Although it’s nothing that I can prove.”
The double whammy of bad news came more than three years ago. Kennedy, who has outlived his prognosis, is now an active advocate for stiffer regulation of PFAS.
“PFAS is everywhere,” he says. “It’s really hard to get any change.”
Indeed, various forms of PFAS are still used in a spectrum of industrial and consumer products – from nonstick frying pans and stain-resistant carpets to food wrappers and firefighting foam – and have become ubiquitous. The chemicals enter the environment anywhere they are made, spilled, discharged or used. Rain can flush them into surface sources of drinking water such as lakes, or PFAS may gradually migrate through the soil to reach the groundwater – another key source of public water systems and private wells.
For the same reasons the chemicals are prized by manufacturers – they resist heat, oil and water – PFAS also persist in the soil, the water and our bodies.
More than 200 million Americans may be drinking PFAS-contaminated water, suggests research by the nonprofit Environmental Working group (EWG), an advocacy group which is collaborating with Ensia on its Troubled Waters reporting project.
As studies continue to link exposures to a lengthening list of potential health consequences, scientists and advocates are calling for urgent action from both regulators and industry to curtail PFAS use and to take steps to ensure the chemicals already in the environment stay out of drinking water.
PFAS dates back to the 1930s and 1940s, when Dupont and Manhattan Project scientists each accidentally discovered the chemicals. The Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Company, now 3M, soon began manufacturing PFAS as a key ingredient in Scotchgard and other non-stick, waterproof and stain-resistant products.
Thousands of different PFAS chemicals emerged over the following decades, including the two most-studied versions: PFOS and PFOA. Oral-B began using PFAS in dental floss. Gore-Tex used it to make waterproof fabrics. Hush Puppies used it to waterproof leather for shoes. And DuPont, along with its spin-off company Chemours, used the chemicals to make its popular Teflon coatings.
Science suggests links between PFAS exposure and a range of health consequences, including possible increased risks of cancer, thyroid disease, high cholesterol, liver damage, kidney disease, low birth-weight babies, immune suppression, ulcerative colitis and pregnancy-induced hypertension.
“PFAS really seem to interact with the full range of biological functions in our body,” says David Andrews, a senior scientist with EWG. “Even at the levels that the average person has in this country, these chemicals are likely having an impact.”
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has even issued a warning that exposure to high levels of PFAS might raise the risk of infection with Covid-19 and noted evidence from human and animal studies that PFAS could lower vaccine efficacy.