A May 2023 study by Harvard found that many cities across the country, especially those with military bases, have drinking water tainted with levels of potentially carcinogenic chemicals above the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s new limits.

The EPA imposed new federal guidelines on artificially created chemicals called PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, in March 2023. The proposal would set firm limits on what many call “forever chemicals.” If the rules are adopted by the end of 2023, water providers will be forced to test for PFAS. The EPA’s new limits are expected to save thousands of lives and ward off serious illnesses nationwide. 

Forever Chemicals and Military Bases

The study, conducted by Harvard’s John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, found a connection between water contamination and the prevalent use of firefighting foams on military bases. Aqueous film forming foam, or AFFF, used in training drills and to fight fires, contains PFAS and is used extensively.

AFFF is at the center of several lawsuits filed by firefighters who claim the toxic foam has caused cancer and other serious illnesses. The forever chemicals in the foams can seep into the soil and nearby water supplies. Since PFAS can take such a long time to break down, forever chemicals from decades ago can remain in water supplies for many years.

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Sources of PFAS

Synthetic forever chemicals have been around since the 1940s. There are about 5,000 types of forever chemicals that have been manufactured for a variety of uses. Some of the more common sources of PFAS include:

  • Cleaning products
  • Cosmetics
  • Fast food packaging
  • Firefighting foams
  • Freshwater fish 
  • Nonstick cookware 
  • Paints and sealants
  • Water-resistant fabrics

Although PFAS are common, there are some measures that can be taken to protect against exposure. These include using a water filter, checking product labels and following food safety guidelines.

PFAS Health Effects

PFAS are linked to several serious health conditions, including:

  • Asthma
  • Cancer, including prostate, kidney and testicular
  • Cardiometabolic disease
  • Decreased vaccine response
  • Developmental delays
  • High cholesterol levels
  • Immunotoxicity
  • Kidney damage
  • Liver effects
  • Low birth weight
  • Preeclampsia
  • Reproductive issues
  • Thyroid and hormone disruption

There have also been links found between forever chemicals and Type 2 diabetes. The chemicals can increase glucose levels and insulin resistance. The immunocompromised, cancer patients and children may also be at a higher risk of illness if exposed to PFAS.

Research has also found a connection between forever chemicals and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD. Studies find that PFAS chemicals can accumulate in the brain if present in large amounts, leading to neurotoxic effects. Scientists say the actual cause of ADHD is still unknown and that more research is needed on the effects of chemical exposure.

Few States Have Banned PFAS

The most controversial PFAS created are banned in the U.S., but products containing the chemicals may still be imported into the country. So far only a few states have created PFAS regulations for drinking water.

In May 2023, Minnesota passed a law banning PFAS in several products, including firefighting foam, cookware, cosmetics, children’s products, dental floss and food packaging. The products in question will need to be forever chemical-free by 2032. Minnesota is now the first state to prohibit PFAS in more than a dozen product categories.