Most Americans Are Oblivious To ‘Forever Chemicals’ And Their Risks, Survey Finds

Photo by CDC on Unsplash
Photo by CDC on Unsplash

By: Cristen Hemingway Jaynes
Published: November 20, 2023

“Nonstick,” “waterproof” and “stain-resistant” are all commonplace terms that are self-explanatory.

But the “forever chemicals” behind the coatings that give products the ability to resist grease, water and oil are not so well-known, it turns out.

A new study conducted by AgriLife scientists at Texas A&M University is the first generalized survey in the United States to test public awareness and knowledge of perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) forever chemicals. The researchers found that most Americans have no knowledge of the substances and are not aware of their potential associated risks, a press release from the Texas Water Resources Institute (TWRI) said.

“This is the first survey of its kind, and what we found is that the vast majority of people do not have a clear understanding of PFAS,” said Allen Berthold, interim director of TWRI and the study’s lead author, in the press release.

There are thousands of manufactured chemicals that fall under the category of PFAS. They are an ever-growing threat to the environment and human health, as they are not easily broken down or gotten rid of. This is because they have one of the strongest possible chemical bonds, that of the molecules carbon and fluorine.

The study, “Let’s talk about PFAS: Inconsistent public awareness about PFAS and its sources in the United States,” was published in the journal PLOS One.

Since the 1940s, PFAS compounds have been used in products from nonstick cookware to food wrappers and many other consumer products, as well as in firefighting foam, according to the press release. PFAS levels have been found in food, soil and air, and toxic amounts have been detected in U.S. drinking water.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proposed a national drinking water standard for PFAS in March. However, most consumers have no idea there is a problem.

“When I ask an audience at a public presentation if they’ve ever heard of PFAS, usually only a few people from a room of 100 will say yes, and that’s fairly consistent with these survey results,” Berthold said in the press release. “PFAS in drinking water has received media and regulatory attention this year, but the general public’s awareness of the contaminant had not been measured until this research.”

The research team analyzed and measured Americans’ knowledge of and experience with PFAS, as well as their perceptions of potential health and environmental risks associated with the compounds.

They found that 45.1 percent had never heard of forever chemicals, while 31.6 had heard of PFAS, but had no knowledge of what they were. Most respondents, 97.4 percent, did not believe PFAS impacted their drinking water, and just 11.4 percent knew that their community had experienced PFAS exposure.

The U.S. Geological Survey came out with research in July that showed at least 45 percent of the country’s drinking water was estimated to be contaminated with one or more kinds of PFAS chemicals.

“Research has come out in the last year showing that many Americans are exposed to PFAS, including through drinking water supplies, whether they know it or not,” said co-author of the study Audrey McCrary, program specialist with TWRI, in the press release. “So, a significant knowledge gap here needs to be addressed.”

 Michael Schramm, TWRI research specialist and co-author of the study, said community exposure was the strongest indicator of PFAS awareness in the study.

“However, of the people aware they were exposed to PFAS, approximately half stated they did not know what PFAS were,” Schramm said in the press release. “This indicates a large gap in the information being provided to the public.”

According to the study, respondents who were aware of community exposure to PFAS had a higher likelihood of knowing the sources of PFAS, altering their use of items that could potentially be contaminated with the toxic compounds and answering that their sources of drinking water were also contaminated.

Across the U.S., 1,100 respondents from all 50 states participated in the online survey.

The survey found no significant differences in experience, knowledge and perceptions of risk regarding PFAS across various demographics.

“It was very notable that there was no statistical difference depending on race, gender or age — perception was largely the same across the board,” said de Villeneuve in the press release. “This research was a fact-finding effort and gives us baseline data moving forward as interest in PFAS remediation continues to grow.”