Persistent Drift: Minimizing PFAS Ecological Impact  

Toxic waste is often the result of technology that improves our lives. Consumers want products that are strong and durable. Nobody wants muddy, stained shoes. We are not fans of eggs sticking to our pans. If we cry during a film, we do not want to leave the theater looking like a raccoon. We want our makeup to stay put but at what price? An astonishing half of all cosmetics tested had some form of per-and polyfl uoroalkyl substances (Dow). PFAS can do all these things because they are chemicals that are manufactured to be durable. This durability means they take a long time to biodegrade. PFAS in substantial amounts has proven to be carcinogenic. More frightening, PFAS have been found in trace amounts in every living animal. While we know these chemicals are on us, and even inside of us, we do not know the extent of the damage PFAS has caused. It has not been thoroughly studied, but evidence keeps proving the dangers of these chemicals. The good news is PFAS can be replaced with safer materials and cleaned from the environment before causing any further harm. 

In Silent Spring, Rachel Carson brought attention to the growing crisis surrounding the use of DDT as a pesticide. Carson published her book in 1962. She warned, “chemicals sprayed on croplands or forests, or gardens lie long in soil (Carson).” It seems obvious now to study the effects of pesticides, they are made to kill life. If they can accumulate, of course, it would be negative. It has been many decades since public attention was drawn to the effects of pesticides. We now have many studies that prove some pesticides could find their way into humans. DDT was eventually banned, but not before it soaked into the groundwater. At one point, the chemical could be found residing in every living human. Silent Spring was a wake-up call to many of the people who read it. Like the fallout of DDT Rachel Carson warned us about, PFAS has the potential to cause environmental havoc. Unlike pesticides, these chemicals were not designed to be lethal, but in massive quantities, they have been known to kill people. 

A tannery using PFAS for waterproofing leather for shoes dumped their waste across the street from one Michigan couple’s home. They found the chemicals had been leeching with the groundwater after the husband died from liver cancer. The chemicals were able to move into the water supply because of the longevity of these “forever chemicals.” Even if these chemicals were placed inside an incinerator, “their core molecules can persist and spread further into the environment, putting humans and wildlife at risk” (Sierra). It cannot be stressed enough how difficult it is to avoid PFAS. They are ubiquitous. The Environmental Working Group has stated that “110 million Americans may be drinking PFOS-contaminated water, and over 99 percent of US residents have some variant of PFAS in their blood” (Sierra). We cannot move upstream; PFAS are already inside of us. 

Cosmetics are a wide-ranging group of products, and the industry is unregulated. PFAS are abundant in these products, and since they accumulate in the body, getting any on the skin would be inadvisable.

These chemicals harm animals by accumulating in the body, especially the liver. PFAS are toxic, and they were bound to get into our water supplies. The companies who make these products should take decisive action as soon as they are made aware. Unfortunately, the companies that make PFAS have not been exactly forthcoming. The same people who could have prevented this ongoing crisis from getting any worse have known the dangers for decades. Uncovered court documents show that scientists for DuPont and 3M admit that the chemicals were bioaccumulative and toxic over seventy years ago (Sierra). PFAS can be found in so many products that regulating it out of existence seems impossible. For this herculean task to be accomplished, the EPA must take decisive measures. Keeping these toxic chemicals off our skin seems like a good place to start. 

Cosmetics are a wide-ranging group of products, and the industry is unregulated. PFAS are abundant in these products, and since they accumulate in the body, getting any on the skin would be inadvisable. PFAS are everywhere in these products, and they might not be listed on the label, but it is an ingredient. Graham Peasley is a University of Notre Dame professor studying PFAS in cosmetics. The question he is asked most often is how to avoid PFAS in makeup. His answer is alarming. Of the twenty-nine products he tested, all of them contained PFAS. It is just not something someone can track alone; “one of the twenty-nine products he tested for individual PFAS had PFAS listed as ingredients” (Dow). The experts know that PFAS are potentially life-threatening, yet we are encouraged to cover our bodies with them, and now we are even drinking PFAS. 

Remember, these chemicals take thousands of years to break down, and because of that, they eventually drain into our watersheds. These chemicals do not biodegrade easily so they will have to be manually removed. Though large in scope, some scientists are ready to tackle this daunting problem. Troubled Waters is a documentary made by CDM Smith that highlights their efforts to clean PFAS out of the drinking water. The Unregulated Contaminant Monitoring Rule or UCMR is a rule created in 2016 by the EPA. The UCMR was created to monitor PFAS and other contaminants. The amount of PFAS that are allowed before a flag is raised is seventy parts per trillion (Troubled Waters). At this point, all that is being done officially is monitoring. The EPA will not require removal until more understanding of the dangers of the chemicals can be assessed. Instead of waiting, some municipalities have decided to take the problem of rising rates of PFAS in drinking water into their own hands, finding solutions in the private sector. 

A small city in Western Massachusetts called Westfield decided they wanted it out of their water. This township discovered four out of eight of its watersheds had higher levels of PFAS than recommended by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Dr. Charles Schaefer, the Director of CDM Smith’s Bellevue Research and Testing Laboratory, was able to help. He is a researcher in PFAS and leading his team, CDM Smith, was able to create standalone treatment plants that can effectively lower PFAS in the city’s drinking water. Conversely, the cost of these projects for municipalities is never broached, and since the EPA does not require the removal of PFAS, the cost of removal is the responsibility of specific individuals, not the government. Until it is proven that PFAS are as dangerous as many scientists believe we will require the private market to fix the problem. It is fortunate that with minimal changes to existing systems, companies like CDM Smith can help in the clean-up of PFAS, only by adding technological tweaks to Ultraviolet (UV) and Granular Activated Carbon (GAC) filtration systems. The good news is Westfield was able with CDM Smith’s help to reclaim its water supplies. While it is good that PFAS accumulation is being resolved at the local level, there must be a federal push to truly clean up these chemicals. 

It is clear the government is aware of the problem. In the documentary, Schaeffer admits that they began their research only after the interest of The Department of Defense who reached out to CDM Smith. The DoD wanted to find a solution when they kept finding PFAS contaminating the drinking water of their military bases and facilities. Contaminated water is also only one piece of the puzzle, and PFAS can be found in so many products, from cosmetics to larger industrial uses like flame retardants. There is growing awareness of PFAS thanks to the EPA working to uncover the dangers of these chemicals. Unfortunately, awareness does not necessarily translate to the removal of PFAS. There might be changes on the way. The Senate has introduced two bills into Congress: “the PFAS Action Act and the Clean Water Standards for PFAS Act” (Consumer Reports on Health). While waiting for the federal government to act, and as we saw with DDT, it could take an exceedingly long time. 

Rachel Carson warned us in Silent Spring, “Seemingly moderate applications of insecticides over a period of years may build up fantastic quantities in soil” (Carson). Like the insecticides she brought to public attention PFAS are accumulating in our water and our bodies. While we do not know exactly what the complications might be from having trace amounts of the chemicals in our bodies, we do know in larger quantities, “Research links PFAS to a wide range of health problems, including some cancers, thyroid disease, immunodeficiencies, birth defects, and learning delays in children” (Consumer Reports on Health). While it is important to pressure government actors to enact legislation that can make it necessary for the industries to curb their production of PFAS, like so many other ecological disasters, customer demand plays a large part. 

While consumers are not scientists and might not be the best advocates, it is important to stay optimistic. In most of the U.S., clean drinking water is abundant. Of course, in some places, the problems have already begun. There are signs pointing to federal intervention if it becomes a larger environmental disaster, but like most issues, public pressure will need to occur before stronger regulations are put in place. DDT created a lot of suffering before it was finally banned. There are still clean-up efforts, and if this recent history is any prelude to our near future, the same will be said for PFAS. For this to happen, we must reduce our use of these chemicals. Sustainable alternatives are being made every day. They will not have the strong chemical bond that PFAS has, and consumers will not be as happy with the products that use them, but it is a small price to pay to remove some of the toxic waste filling our watersheds.  

Works Cited 

(Carson) Carson, Rachel. Silent Spring. Fawcett Publications Inc., 1962. 

(Consumer Reports on Health) Consumer Reports on Health. “Getting Rid of PFAS.” Consumer Reports, Inc., vol. Vol. 34, no. Issue 1, Jan. 2022, pp. p2-2. 2/5p. Consumer Health Complete, 

(Dow) Dow, Caitlin. “LO-O-O-NG LASTING MAKEUP: PFAS Found in Roughly Half of Tested Cosmetic.” Nutrition Action Health Letter, vol. Vol. 48, no. Issue 10, Dec. 2021, pp. p10-10. 1p. Consumer Health Complete, 

(Sierra) Sierra. America’s Overwhelming PFAS Problem. No. 0161-7362, Mar/Apr 2020, pp. p1-3. 3p. Consumer Health Complete, 

(Troubled Waters) “Troubled Waters: The Fight against PFAS.”, Accessed 4 Mar. 2022. 

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