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Ingesting 'forever chemicals' is unavoidable, says state toxicologist

Jason Gillman from Pixabay

Along the linings of nonstick pans, waterproof jackets and firefighting foams — sneaky chemicals known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, exist without most people questioning them.

Recent backlash erupted earlier this month when low levels of PFAS were detected in a West O’ahu well. State toxicologist with the Department of Health Diana Felton wants the community to know that there are thousands of types of PFAS to be aware of.

"So at Makakilo was PFPeA. At Kunia, they found eight different chemicals the first found and when they did the confirmation testing they found a different strain of chemicals," Felton said.

The common nickname for all PFAS is the “forever chemical” because they take thousands of years to break down. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warns that long-term exposure can have effects that complicate pregnancies and increase cancer risks.

The chemicals are also unregulated contaminants, meaning there are no rules or laws requiring water systems to test for the chemicals. Felton said that if anyone tests their water wells for PFAS because they are concerned, they are required to report their findings to the DOH.

Additionally, the Environmental Protection Agency has health advisory levels in place for only four PFAS chemicals: PFOS, PFOA, PFHxS and PFNA.

Felton said the best way to monitor toxicity is by comparing the EPA’s regional screening levels. The tool calculates the level of risk a certain contaminant has to the human body.

"These findings that we have so far at Makakilo are below those levels. There are some at Kunia that are above those levels and so further work is being done," Felton said.

The state Legislature passed a bill last year banning PFAS in food packaging and firefighting foam by the end of 2024.

This year, lawmakers are trying to pass Senate Bill 504, which would ban PFAS from personal care products.

Felton said avoiding fast food and grease-proof food packaging is the simplest way to limit PFAS consumption — but nothing is definite.

"It’s going to be impossible for anyone to completely 100% avoid exposure to these chemicals because they really are everywhere," Felton told HPR.

Zoe Dym is a news producer at Hawaiʻi Public Radio.
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