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Faye Flam

‘Forever Chemicals’ Deserve Far More EPA Scrutiny

Compounds known as PFAS linger in our water, our soil — even our bodies. And manufacturers don’t have to prove they’re safe.

What’s in the water?

What’s in the water?

Photographer: Sean Gallup/Getty Images Europe

Most of us are walking around with an array of poorly understood chemicals in our bloodstreams and livers — an unintended consequence of the great 20th century heyday of chemical innovation. They’re so stable they’ve been dubbed “forever chemicals.” That means that even if we stop producing them today, some might still course through people’s veins centuries from now. We’re barely regulating them, even though their harms have become better-known. 

The EPA took a small step forward last week by proposing limits on drinking water exposure to PFOA and PFOS — two members of this large class of thousands of chemicals known as PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalky substances). The new EPA limits are a good start, but they don’t get to the root of the problem: Although drugs are tested rigorously for safety before being released to the public, with chemical compounds the burden of proof is on consumers to prove they are unsafe — after companies have already released them into the environment.