Those forever chemicals – known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) – stem from products including fast food containers and wrappers, cleaning products, water-resistant clothing, and personal care products such as shampoo. There are thousands of PFAS known to man, none of which are naturally occurring and many of which can take decades to degrade.
Ian Cousins, a professor of environmental studies at Stockholm University, said the results of the study, which he helped author, were startling.
“I was surprised that even in the remotest areas on Earth, that the levels in rainwater, for example in Antarctica and on the Tibetan plateau, are above the recently set U.S. EPA health advisories for drinking water,” Cousins said.
The reduced effects of vaccines in children have been the main driver of the EPA standards for rainwater being lowered, Cousins said. Severe impacts like cancers and liver enlargement occur at much higher levels of exposure to the forever chemicals.
“The safe levels have dropped over the last 20 years as we’ve gradually gotten a better understanding of the toxicity of these substances,” Cousins said. “The safe levels keep dropping with time.”
The problem of chemicals in drinking water is one Cousins says society will have to live with for the foreseeable future.
“I don’t think any of us can avoid this low-level exposure,” Cousins said.
PFAS are used in nonstick frying pans, water-repellent sports gear, stain-resistant rugs and countless other consumer products. The chemical bonds are so strong that they don’t degrade or do so only slowly in the environment and remain in a person’s bloodstream indefinitely.
Scientists at Northwestern University say they have devised a method for breaking apart some of the infamously unbreakable toxins. Using low temperatures and inexpensive reagents, scientists have found they can break down two major classes of PFAS, while leaving behind only harmless byproducts.
The Associated Press and The Hill’s Sharon Udasin contributed to this report.