Skepticism

“Forever Chemicals” in our Drinking Water? Don’t Panic!

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Transcript:

People in 43 cities are drinking “forever chemicals” in their tap water, screams headlines from pretty much every mainstream media outlet in the country, like this one on Buzzfeed. Terrifying! Except…it’s not. I mean, depending on your definition of terrifying. Maybe you think cockroaches are terrifying. Concerning? Yes. Terrifying? I wouldn’t set my house on fire to kill it. It’s the same here: you should be concerned about it, but this is classic fear-mongering, and I knew it as soon as I saw the source of all these articles: the Environmental Working Group.

I first became familiar with the EWG more than a decade ago when I saw news stories cautioning that lipstick was dangerous because of lead. I had started Skepchick a few years prior and was starting to tour and give talks, and so I was on the lookout for science stories targeted at women so I looked into it. I found that EWG grossly exaggerated the problem: the amount of lead they found in lipstick wasn’t that big of a deal, unless you were regularly eating entire tubes of lipstick for breakfast. And lunch. And dinner. And maybe a light bedtime snack. 

But they were right that it was something to be vaguely concerned about, because the US government didn’t do a good job of making cosmetics manufacturers keep dangerous things out of their products. There was basically no process in place to protect consumers if something bad did end up in a product, and that isn’t such a great idea when people are slathering their skin with shit, or lining our delicate eyeballs with it. Or, in my case, straight up stabbing ourselves in the eye with it. Eyeliner, you are my mortal enemy.

Over the years, every time I see a scare-mongering news story about “chemicals” in products that may or may not be bad for people, EWG is behind it. Back in 2016 the Skepchick sister site Grounded Parents called out EWG for their bullshit sunscreen scare-mongering. Jenny Splinter pointed out that EWG is biased because they make money selling “all natural” products that replace the ones they’re telling consumers are dangerous, and their board is made up of quacks and people with ties to the “natural” skincare industry.

So here we are again. This time, “forever chemicals” are the target. That’s the catchy, scary nickname given to per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, aka PFAS chemicals. EWG says that they found them in the drinking water for dozens of American cities, and that this is concerning because there is “some evidence of links to cancer and lowered fertility.” Hmm.

You would know PFAS for their use in nonstick coatings and waterproofing on boots and jackets, but they’re so much more common than that. They’re used in firefighting foam, candy wrappers, cosmetics, plastic manufacturing, wire insulation, and basically anything that resists water or oil. Because they’re so widely used and because most of them don’t easily break down, they get into our soil, our water supply, and yes, even our blood.

Is this a bad thing? Well, I mean, it’s probably not a good thing. Adding things like this to our body is rarely found to give us superpowers. It’s not gamma radiation. But whether or not it causes harm, and if so how much harm, remains to be seen.

First of all, you have to realize that talking about PFAS chemicals is like talking about birds. Like, you could say that birds are having a real negative impact on your recent car paint job, but you’re not talking about all birds. Penguins are birds, and they have probably never shit on your car, unless you live in Antarctica or Melbourne or somewhere equally ridiculous.

The term “PFAS” encompasses hundreds of different chemicals, each with their own job and their own effect on the environment and the human body. So when we talk about PFAS we’re talking about birds, and if you’re picturing a tiny sparrow I may actually be talking about an 8-foot ostrich. If you’re talking about how much damage a bird can do to you, I assure you that you’re going to want to know whether you’re getting pecked by a sparrow or kicked in the gut by an ostrich.

So there are hundreds of PFAS chemicals in production, and scientists have not been able to rigorously test, well, any of them really. The very real problem here with PFAS, the one that you might want to be concerned about, is that the US government doesn’t mind manufacturers using a new, untested-on-humans chemical until it starts causing problems in the general population. It’s more of a “don’t ask permission; beg forgiveness” sort of deal that helps products get to market faster at the possible expense of consumers’ health and wellbeing. Yay, capitalism!

Scientists know that PFAS are ending up in our environment and our bodies, and they’ve known this for quite some time. That’s not to say that a redundant study is unwanted — more research on a thing like this is always good, confirming what we already know or contradicting previous research. This is the former, and it’s fine.

What’s not fine is EWS using that research to fear-monger. Scientists are still studying how PFAS impact our health and environment. Yes, some PFAS may do some damage. For instance, from 2005 to 2013 three epidemiologists studied the link between one PFAS, known as PFOA, and diseases. They found a “probable link” between PFOA and “high cholesterol, ulcerative colitis, thyroid disease, testicular cancer, kidney cancer, and pregnancy-induced hypertension.”

Does that mean PFOA causes those things! Nope. It means this one study found a link. They don’t know how PFOA would cause those diseases, or even if it’s a cause-and-effect relationship. More research is needed to figure that out.

This was also a “probable link” found in people living in a town around an industrial plant that was producing PFOA. So even if it is causal, it may not be relevant to the average person who uses a metal spatula on their nonstick pan while making eggs in the morning. Which you shouldn’t do. Honestly, go to a yard sale and get yourself a cast iron pan like a proper adult, ya goon.

And that brings me to my final point: while scientists try to figure out how PFAS affect humans and their environment, you can figure out what is actually essential to you. Do you really need that nonstick pan? Do you need all of your coats and jackets to be waterproof? Do you need to throw away that waterproof tent that got a little hole in it, or can you patch it up? Can you buy those things secondhand? Can you spend a little more to buy wellmade products from retailers with lifetime guarantees, so you don’t throw your things away when they fall apart or aren’t trendy anymore? Are there little ways that you, personally, can cut down on the number of PFAS in your life and the number that will be used in the manufacturing of the things you buy?

That’s the takeaway, here, and not whatever the Environmental Working Group wants. As usual, please follow the advice of my Magrathean whale: don’t panic.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor.

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