MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
They're called forever chemicals because they break down extremely slowly. And because they've been put in so many things, they are now everywhere - in soil, in our drinking water, inside our bodies. We're talking about PFAS. The Environmental Protection Agency just revised its guidance about PFAS in drinking water. The agency is warning they could pose health risks if present at all. Well, let's bring in Arlene Blum to discuss. She's a biophysical chemist and the executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute. Welcome.
ARLENE BLUM: Delighted to be here.
KELLY: All right. So I'm trying to wrap my head around this. In a few sentences, give us the primer on what exactly PFAS are.
BLUM: Well, PFAS are a class of thousands of chemicals. And I like to say they are both the best and the worst. They're the best in that they're very useful at keeping things dry, keeping grease out of things - they're slippery - keeping things moving. But they're the worst because, as you said, they never break down. And all the ones that have been studied have been found to be harmful.
KELLY: I mentioned that they're in soil. They're in water. They're also in things - you said they're slippery - they're in things like nonstick pans, things like rain jackets. What else?
BLUM: We're scientists who have studied PFAS. We tested cosmetics and found them in about half the cosmetics we tested, things like waterproof mascara, shiny lip gloss, shiny foundation. They used to be used in carpets for stain resistance, but the carpet industry has moved away from them, which is great. That was the biggest source of exposure for kids in the past. They're used in the outdoor industry a lot. So they can be very useful. But the good news is they're usually not necessary, and there usually are safer alternatives.
KELLY: The EPA, as we mentioned, is warning that they pose health risks. It sounds like just about all of us would have been exposed to them. What kind of health risks are we talking?
BLUM: So we do all have some PFAS in our body, unfortunately. And across the whole population, they increase the risk of certain kinds of cancer, some infertility. They can contribute to obesity, kidney disease. There's a whole wide range of health effects. They can adversely affect almost all of our organs. But that doesn't mean that everyone's going to get these effects. This is just across the population.
KELLY: It's the range of things that could happen. So in terms of the way forward here, as you see it, the way forward is to keep them out of products going forward. So there's a role here for the government. There's also a huge role, it would seem, for the private sector.
BLUM: Absolutely. And indeed, the carpet industry, for example, decided ahead of regulation to find better alternatives for carpets. The outdoor industry is on the path towards that. Food packaging - there have been a number of announcements that big fast-food companies are no longer having PFAS in their packaging. The cosmetics companies are moving away from it. So this is something where manufacturers can move faster than the government, but the possibility of government regulation definitely moves some forward. And it looks like there's legislation all over the United States, in the various states, proposing regulation on PFAS in food packaging and cosmetics, in textiles, in a wide range of products.
KELLY: I'm thinking, I put on lipstick this morning. I had a nonstick pan sitting on my stove as I walked out. I mean, what can each of us do personally? What should we be thinking about doing to keep these things out of us, out of our lives?
BLUM: Well, in terms of nonstick pans, the PFAS is used to make the nonstick pan, but the pan itself probably isn't going to be a problem. So - and it's the same with Gore-Tex. PFAS is used to make Gore-Tex, to make outdoor jackets. But when you're wearing it, it shouldn't be a health problem. However, the manufacturing of your Teflon pan and the Gore-Tex jacket is a big problem. So I like to tell people, you can wear your jacket, you can use your pan, but don't buy another one.
KELLY: That is Arlene Blum, biophysical chemist and executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute. Thank you.
BLUM: Thank you.
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