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From the New York Times, I'm Sabrina Tavernisi, and this is The Daily. This month, for the first time, the Environmental Protection Agency began to regulate a class of synthetic chemicals, known as forever chemicals, in America's drinking water. But the chemicals, which have been linked to liver disease and other serious health problems, are in far more than just our water supply. Today, my colleague, Kim Tinglei, explains. It's Wednesday, April 17th. So, Kim, any time the EPA announces a regulation, I think we all take notice because implicit in it is this idea that we have been exposed to something, something bad, potentially, lead or asbestos. And recently, the EPA is regulating a type of chemical known as PFAS. For those who don't know, what are PFAS chemicals?


Yeah. So PFAS stands for per and polyfluoroalkyl substances. They're often called forever chemicals just because they persist so long in the environment and they don't easily break down. For that reason, we also use them in a ton of consumer products. They're in makeup, they're in carpet, they're in non-stick cookware, they're in food packaging, all sorts of things.


I feel like I've been hearing about these chemicals actually for a very long time. I mean, non-stick pans, Teflon, right? That's the thing that's in my mind when I think PFAS.


Absolutely. Yeah, this class of chemicals has been around for decades. What's really important about this is that the EPA has decided for the first time to regulate them in drinking water. That's a ruling that stands to affect tens of millions of people.


So help me understand where these things came from and how it's taken so long to get to the point where we're actually regulating them.


They really actually came about a long time ago. 1938, DuPont, the people who eventually got us to Teflon They were actually looking for a more stable refrigerant, and they came upon this chemical, PFAS. The thing that all PFAS chemicals have is a really strong bond between carbon atoms and fluorine atoms. This particular pair is super strong and super durable. They have water repellent properties. They're stain resistant, they're grease resistant, and they found a lot of uses for them Initially in World War II, they were using them as part of their uranium enrichment process to do all these kinds of things.


And then- Well, good thing it's Teflon.


In the 1950s is when they really started to come out as commercial products. Even burned food won't stick to Teflon, so it's always easy to clean. So DuPont started using it in Teflon pans.


Cookware never needs scouring.


If it has DuPont, Teflon. Then another company, 3M, also started using a PFAS. It makes gotch-got fabric protector.


It keeps ordinary spills from becoming extraordinary stains.


In one of their big products, Scotchgard. You probably remember spraying that on your shoes if you want to make your shoes waterproof.


Use Scotchgard Fabric Protector and let your cut run its over. Right. Miracle product, Scotchgard hard, Teflon. But of course, we're talking about these chemicals because they've been found to pose health threats. When does that risk start to surface?


It's pretty early on that DuPont and 3M start finding effects in animals and studies that they're running in-house. Around the mid '60s, they start seeing that PFAS has an effect on rats. It's increasing the liver and kidney weights of the rats. And so that seems problematic. And they keep running tests over the next decade and a half, and they try different things with different animals. In one study, they gave monkeys really, really high levels of PFAS, and those monkeys died. And so they have a pretty strong sense that these chemicals could be dangerous. And Then in 1979, they start to see that the workers that are in the plants manufacturing, working with these chemicals, that they're starting to have higher rates of abnormal liver function. In a Teflon plant, they had some pregnant workers that were working with these chemicals. One of those workers in 1981 gave birth to a child who had some pretty severe birth defects. Then by mid-1980s, DuPont figures out that it's not just their workers who are being exposed to these chemicals, but communities that are living in areas surrounding their Teflon plant, particularly the one in Parkersberg, West Virginia, that those communities have PFAS in their tap water.


Wow. Based on its own studies, DuPont knows its chemicals are making animals sick. They seem to be making workers sick. Now they found out that the chemicals have made their way into the water supply. What do they do with that information?


As far as we know, they didn't do much. They certainly didn't tell the residents of Parkersberg who were drinking that water, that there was anything that they needed to be worried about.


How is that possible? I mean, setting aside the fact that DuPont is the one actually studying the health effects of its own chemicals, presumably to make sure they're safe, we've seen these big regulating agencies like the EPA and the FDA that exist in order to watch out for something exactly like this, a company that is producing something that may be harming Americans. Why weren't they keeping a closer watch?


Yeah. So it goes back to the way that we regulate chemicals in the US. It goes through an act called the Toxic Substances Control Act that's administered by the EPA. And basically, it It gives companies a lot of room to regulate themselves in a sense. Under this act, they have a responsibility to report to the EPA. If they find these kinds of potential issues with a chemical, they have a responsibility to do their due diligence when they're putting a chemical out into the environment. But there's really not a ton of oversight. The enforcement mechanism is that the EPA can find them But this thing can happen pretty easily where DuPont keeps going with something that they think might really be a problem. And then the find by the time it plays out is just a tiny fraction of what DuPont has earned from producing these chemicals. Really, the incentive is for them to take the punishment at the end rather than pull it out early.


It seems like it's It's just self-reporting, which is basically self-regulation in a way.


Yeah, I think that that is the way a lot of advocacy groups and experts have characterized it to me is that chemical companies are essentially regulating themselves.


How did this danger eventually come to light? I mean, if this is in some DuPont vault, what happened?


Well, there's a couple of different things that started to happen in the late '90s. The community around Parkersberg, West Virginia, people had reported seeing really strange symptoms in their animals. Cows were losing their hair, they had lesions, they were behaving strange Usually, some of their calves were dying, and a lot of people in the community felt like they were having health problems that just didn't really have a good answer, mysterious sicknesses and some cases of cancers. And so they initiate a class action lawsuit against DuPont. As part of that class action lawsuit, DuPont, at a certain point, is forced to turn over all of their internal documentation. And so what was in the files was all of that research that we mentioned all of the studies about animals, workers, the birth defects. It was really the first time that the public saw what DuPont and 3M had already seen, which is the potential health harms of these chemicals.


That seems pretty damning. I mean, what happened to the company?


Dupont and 3M are still able to say these were just a few workers, and they were working with high levels of the chemicals, more more than a person would get drinking it in the water. And so there's still an opportunity for this to be correlation but not causation. There's not really a way to use that data to prove for sure that it was PFAS that caused these health problems.


In other words, the company is arguing, Look, yes, these two things exist at the same time, but it doesn't mean that one caused the other.


Exactly. One of the things that this class action lawsuit demands in the settlement that they eventually reach with DuPont is they want DuPont to fund a formal independent health study of the communities that are affected by this PFAS in their drinking water. And so they want DuPont to pay to figure out for sure using the best available science, how many of these health problems are potentially related to their chemicals. And so they ask them to pay for it, and they get together an independent group of researchers to undertake this study. And it ends up being the first, and it still might be the biggest epidemiological study of PFAS in a community. They've got about 69,000 participants in this study.


Wow, that's big.


It's big, yeah. And what they ended up deciding was that they could confidently say that there was what they ended up calling a probable link. They were really confident that the chemical exposure that the study participants had experienced was linked to high cholesterol, ulcerative colitis, thyroid disease, testicular cancer, kidney cancer, and pregnancy-induced hypertension. Those were the conditions that they were able to say with a good degree of certainty were related to their chemical exposure. There were others that they just didn't have the evidence to reach a strong conclusion.


Overall, pretty substantial health effects. It vindicates the communities in West Virginia that were claiming that these chemicals were really affecting their health.


Absolutely. As the years have gone on, that was just the beginning of researchers starting to understand all the different kinds of health problems that these chemicals could potentially be causing. And so since the big DuPont class action study, there's really just been this building and building and building of different researchers coming out with these different pieces of evidence that have accumulated to a pretty alarming picture of what some of the potential health outcomes could be.


Okay, so that really brings us to the present moment, right? When at last, it seems the EPA is saying, enough is enough, we need to regulate these things.


Yeah, it seems like the EPA has been watching this preponderance of evidence accumulate, and they're deciding that it's a real health problem, potentially, that they need to regulate. The EPA has identified six of these PFAS chemicals that it's going to regulate. But the concern that I think a lot of experts have is that this particular regulation is not going to keep PFAS out of our bodies.


We'll be right back. So, Kim, you just said that these regulations probably won't keep PFAS chemicals out of our bodies. What did you mean?


Well, the EPA is talking about regulating these six kinds of PFAS, but there are actually more than 10,000 different kinds of PFAS that are already being produced and out there in the environment.


Why those six exactly? I mean, is it because those are the ones responsible for most of the harm?


Those are the ones that the EPA has seen enough evidence about that they are confident that they are probably causing harm. But it doesn't mean that the other ones are not also doing something similar. It's just impossible for researchers to be able to test each individual chemical compound and try to link it to a health outcome. I talked to a lot of researchers who were involved in this area, and they said that they haven't really seen a PFAS that doesn't have a harm, but they just don't have information on the vast majority of these compounds.


In other words, we just haven't studied the rest of them enough yet to even know how harmful actually are, which is alarming.


Yeah, that's right. There's just new ones coming out all the time.


Right. Okay, so of the six that the EPA is actually intending to regulate, though, are those new regulations strict enough to keep these chemicals out of our bodies?


The regulations for those six chemicals really only cover getting them out of the drinking water. Drinking water only really accounts for about 20% of a person's overall PFAS exposure.


Wow. So only a fifth of the total exposure.


Yeah. There are lots of other ways that you can come into contact with PFAS. We eat PFAS, we inhale PFAS, we rub it on our skin. It's in so many different products. Sometimes those products are not ones that you would necessarily think of. They're in carpets, they're in furniture, they're in dental floss, raincoats, vinyl flooring, artificial turf, all kinds of products that you want to be either waterproof or stain resistant, or both have these chemicals in them. So the cities and towns are going to have to figure out how to test for and monitor for these six kinds of PFAS. Then they're also going to have to figure out how to filter them out of the water supply. I think a lot of people are concerned that this is going to be just a really expensive endeavor, and it's also not really going to take care of the entire problem.


If you step back and really look at the bigger problem, the companies are still making these things, right? I mean, we're running around trying to regulate the stuff at the end stage, but these things are still being dumped into the environment.


Yeah, I think it's a huge criticism of our our regulatory policy. There's a lot of onus put on the EPA to prove that a harm has happened once the chemicals are already out there and then to regulate the chemicals. I think that there's a criticism that we should do things the other way around, right? And so, tougher regulations on the front end before it goes out into the environment. And that's what the European Union has been doing. The European Chemicals Agency puts more of the burden on companies to prove that their products and their chemicals are safe. And the European Chemicals Agency is also right now considering just a ban on all PFAS products.


Is that a model, perhaps, of what a tough regulation could look like in the US?


There's two sides to that question. The first side is that a lot of people feel like it would be better if these chemical companies had to meet a higher standard of proof in terms of demonstrating that their products or their chemicals are going to be safe once they've been put out in the environment. The other side is that doing that upfront research can be really expensive and could potentially limit companies who are trying to innovate in that space. In terms of PFAS, specifically, this is a really important chemical for us. A lot of the things that we use it in, there's not necessarily a great replacement at the ready that we can just swap in. It's used in all sorts of really important medical devices or renewable energy industries or firefighting foam. In some cases, there are alternatives that might be safer that companies can use, but in other cases, they just don't have that yet. So PFAS is still really important to our daily lives.


Right. That leaves us in a pickle, right? Because we know these things might be harming us, yet we're stuck with them, at least for now. Let me just ask you this question, Kim, which I've been wanting to ask you since the beginning of this episode, which is if you're a person who is concerned about your exposure to PFAS, what do you do?


Yeah, so this is really tricky. I asked everybody this question who I talked to, and everybody has a little bit of a different answer based on their circumstance. For me, what I ended up doing was getting rid of the things that I could spot and get rid of. I got rid of some carpeting, and I checked when I was buying my son a raincoat that it was made by a company company that didn't use PFAS. It's also expensive, right? And so if you can afford to get a raincoat from a place that doesn't manufacture PFAS, it's going to cost more than if you buy the budget raincoat. And so it's unfair to put the onus on consumers in that way. And it's also just not necessarily clear where exactly your exposure is coming from. So I talk to people who said, well, it's in dust, so I vacuum a lot, or it's in my cleaning products, so I use natural cleaning products. I think it's really a scattershot approach that consumers can take. But I don't think that there is a magic approach that gets you a PFAS free life.


So, Kim, this is pretty dark, I have to say. I think what's frustrating is that it feels like we have these government agencies that are supposed to be protecting our health. But when you drill down here, the guidance is really more like you're on your own. I mean, it's hard not to just throw up your hands and say, I give up.


Yeah, I think it's really tricky to try to know what you do with all of this information as an individual. As much as you can, you can try to limit your individual exposure, but It seems to me as though it's at a regulatory level that meaningful change would happen and not so much throwing out your pots and pans and getting new ones. One thing about PFAS is just that we're in the stage still of trying to understand exactly what it's doing inside of us. There's a certain amount of research that has to happen in order to both To convince people that there's a real problem that needs to be solved and clean up what we've put out there. I think that we're in the middle of that arc, and I think that that's the point at which people start looking for solutions.


Kim, thank you.


Thank you.


We'll be right back. Here's what else you should know today. On Tuesday, in day two of jury selection for the historic Hush Money case against Donald Trump, lawyers succeeded in selecting seven jurors out of the twelve that are required for the criminal trial after failing to pick a single juror on Monday. Lawyers for Trump repeatedly sought to remove potential jurors whom they argued were biased against the President. Among the reasons they cited were social media posts expressing negative views of the former President, and in one case, a video posted by a potential juror of New Yorkers celebrating Trump's loss in the 2020 election. Once a full jury is seated, which could come as early as Friday, the criminal trial is expected to last about six weeks. Today's episode was produced by Claire Tennis-Sketter, Shannon Lynn, Summer Tamad, Stella Tan, and Jessica Chung, with help from Sydney Harper. It was edited by Devon Taylor. Fact-checked by Susan Lee, contains original music by Dan Powell, Alisha Baetube, and Marion Lozano, and was engineered by Chris Wood. Our theme music is by Jim Brunberg and Ben Lanser of WNDY. That's it for the Daily. I'm Sabrina Tavernisi. See you tomorrow.