SALT LAKE CITY — If you wear any type of clothing that repels water or are using older nonstick cookware and nibble on chips out of a bag, you are exposed to “forever chemicals” — substances that don’t ever break down.
They are even inside of you, in your blood.
The problem is, studies have linked some of these 4,000 manmade chemicals to liver damage, kidney cancer, thyroid disease, decreased fertility and low birth weight.
“It is going to take a lot of effort from everyone to make a decision. With environmental issues we often want to point a finger at a culprit for blame, but there is no single culprit with this. These are compounds that make our life easier.” — Ben Brown, head of a working group at the Utah Department of Environmental Quality
“There are thousands upon thousands of these,” said Ben Brown, who is heading up a working group at the Utah Department of Environmental Quality to look at the issue and form a monitoring plan. “We all use these compounds in our everyday life.”
Actions to address forever chemicals are taking place on multiple fronts, involving efforts among the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, states, water providers, the Centers for Disease Control, industry and the agriculture world, to name a few.
“Everybody is concerned about it, but nobody knows what to do,” said Jill Jones, general manager of the Central Davis Sewer District.
Even Hollywood is getting involved.
“Dark Waters,” is playing in select theaters and opened nationwide Friday. It stars Anne Hathaway and Mark Ruffalo, detailing the story of an attorney who took on DuPont, which paid a settlement of $670 million in 2017 stemming from water contamination lawsuits.
The suit alleged DuPont knew a chemical called PFOA — used in Teflon and other products — was toxic, but used it anyway.
The company has since phased out its use in the United States, but PFOA and PFOS abound in products people use everyday. Ruffalo even testified in Congress earlier this year to detail the chemicals’ harmful effects and push passage of pending legislation requiring their regulation.
Jones said the movie will stoke a lot of concern about a voluminous group of chemicals that are just starting to emerge as problematic and remain a topic with limited research.
One of her engineer’s family members saw the trailer, and started asking questions. So far, there are few answers.
“There is a lot of uncertainty because we don’t have any guidance on this from the federal government,” Brown said.
This week, as a result of an action plan the EPA developed to address forever chemicals in a multipronged approach, the federal agency announced it may institute thresholds for those PFOA and PFOS in drinking water. The proposal is under review by the Office of Management and Budget.
In 2013, the EPA ordered all states to test for forever chemicals in public drinking water supplies. Brown, the environmental program manager for the Utah Division of Water Quality, said Utah results showed “non-detect,” but it is a high threshold of 70 parts per trillion.
Utah plans to do an array of testing next year, sampling drinking water systems, landfills, and even the tissue of ducks and fish to assess the problem.
Brown said because this is a relatively new issue, the agency will have a tough time knowing what to do after testing.
“It is one thing to go out and sample,” he said. “The big question is what are we going to do with that when we get the numbers.”
Brown said some states like Michigan have already ordered statewide testing of public drinking water supplies.
He said some of those states that are acting now are doing so because they have companies that manufacture forever chemicals.
Utah does not.
“In one sense that is good, but in another sense, it makes it difficult to know where to start to determine if these compounds are in the water,” he said.
Both Brown and Jones noted that Utah is also at an advantage because much of the drinking water supply comes from the snowpack and is stored in high mountain reservoirs.
“We get our drinking water pretty quickly,” Brown said. “We don’t divert our water from a river where it has gone through a watershed. It does not go through a lot of urbanization.”
As an example, forever chemicals are found in sewage, but at Jones’s treatment plant the wastewater that has been treated is discharged into Farmington Bay at the Great Salt Lake — not anywhere in proximity to threaten a drinking water supply.
But the chemicals are showing up in some cows and they are a major concern at military bases. They are also used in fire suppression foam, which raises questions about Utah’s prolific wildfire season in the high mountains and any degradation of groundwater supplies.
Earlier this year, the Centers for Disease Control launched the first study to look at human exposure to forever chemicals at multiple sites. It awarded a million dollars to seven institutions in varying states and will recruit 2,000 children between the ages of 4 and 17 and 6,000 adults exposed to forever chemicals in drinking water. The intent is to look at health outcomes.
According to the CDC, these forever chemicals — known under the umbrella of PFAS — have been used in industry and consumer products since the 1950s. They are chemicals that resist grease, water and oil.
Brown said it is going to be an exhaustive, drawn-out process to figure out what sort of public health standard should be developed.
“It is going to take a lot of effort from everyone to make a decision,” he said. “With environmental issues we often want to point a finger at a culprit for blame, but there is no single culprit with this. These are compounds that make our life easier.”