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APTOPIX Chicago Daily Life

Erin Hooley / Associated Press

APTOPIX Chicago Daily Life

Erin Hooley / Associated Press

Ditch microwave popcorn? With toxic ‘forever chemicals’ on the rise, here’s how to limit exposure

PFAS chemicals can linger almost permanently in soil, water and air.

Erin Hooley / Associated Press


Toxic “forever” chemicals are rising in Lake Michigan, according to a new study published by the American Chemical Society.

This group of man-made chemicals – also known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) – are called “forever” chemicals because they are nearly impossible to destroy.

Since their invention in the 1930s, PFAS chemicals are frequently used in industrial processes and consumer products to repel oil and water and resist heat. Now, they can be found in our soil, air, water, and food.

Along with contaminating the environment, PFAS chemicals have been linked to adverse effects on people’s health.

To learn more about this issue, Reset sat down with Michael Hawthorne, a Chicago Tribune environment reporter, and Erik Olson, senior strategic director of health at the Natural Resources Defense Council. Listen to the full conversation above, or check out the takeaways below.

PFAS chemicals impact on health

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, PFAS exposure is potentially associated with a range of health effects, including:

  • Increased risk of kidney, prostate and testicular cancers
  • Decreased fertility
  • Development effects in children
  • Reduced vaccine response
  • Increased cholesterol 

New regulations and legislation

In April, the EPA set the first national limits on PFAS chemicals in drinking water. Public water systems have three years to complete initial monitoring. Within five years, they must inform the public about the levels measured in drinking water and reduce PFAS chemicals to below the federal standards.

Earlier this year, Congress also passed the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which provides more than $40 million to address emerging contaminants, like PFAS, in drinking water.

How to protect yourself 

You can buy a filter to treat your drinking water. Check out this EPA resource for more information.

You can also look for PFAS-free alternatives to certain consumer products. Products that commonly contain these forever chemicals include:

  • Cleaning products
  • Rain jackets, umbrellas and other water-resistant items
  • Nonstick cookware or other grease-resistant products, like paper
  • Stain-resistant coatings for fabrics and upholstery 

But these chemicals can be hard to avoid on your own, said Erik Olson, senior strategic director of health at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

“You can't completely shop your way out of this,” Olson said. “That’s why we need EPA and controls to stop industries from discharging this stuff.”

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