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Should you be worried about the 'forever chemicals' in Fort Worth's water supply?


The U.S. Geological Survey found PFAS "forever chemicals" in at least 45% of U.S. tap water.
The U.S. Geological Survey found PFAS "forever chemicals" in at least 45% of U.S. tap water.

A recent study found nearly half of the nation’s tap water system had one or more PFAS or so-called “forever chemicals” in them. Exposure to PFAS at high levels has been linked to cancer and other health concerns.

KERA’s Sam Baker talks to Dr. Kapil Sharma of UT Southwestern Medical Center about whether the average person should worry. Dr. Sharma specializes in environmental toxicology and industrial chemical exposure.

What are PFAS?

PFAS is actually a broad name for a group of almost 300 different chemicals. They all refer to something called polyfluorinated, which means that these are, if you go back to your basic chemistry, carbon chains that are attached to multiple fluoride groups. And that bond between the carbon and the fluoride group is very, very strong and very, very hard to break.

PFAS have been around since the 1950s and they've been used in a lot of applications to produce things like Teflon nonstick pans, as people are called, Scotchgard coatings that people would use on furniture or on carpets to make them stain resistant. They were used in a number of items with food packaging. So they've been used in quite a large amount of consumer products.

The city of Fort Worth, through a study, has uncovered some PFAS in the drinking water excuse me, and is believed to have gotten into the drinking water through firefighting foam.  the city of Fort Worth is suing the manufacturers of the firm. But the question here is can you get PFAS out of the drinking water?

Yes, you can. there are large-scale procedures that can be done to help reduce the level of PFAS in the water. The EPA has put out some guidance starting in March to keep the levels of these legacy agents under four parts per trillion, which is a very low level by most chemical standards. Now, that's not yet an enforceable limit. It's going through the process that the EPA uses to put forth an enforceable regulation.

On an individual level, there are ways to help reduce the PFAS in your water supply. One can use an activated charcoal filter. So, these are commonly available things like Brita filters and things like that that use charcoal that will bind some, but not all of the force agents in water. So it will reduce exposure.

Would the average individual have come in contact with enough PFAS to be - well, to be scared, really?

In my assessment, no, I would say that unless you are exposed either via your line of work, or if you are living near or in an area where quite a lot of it was produced or happened to be dumped. Those are the areas of concern. And there are some contaminated watersheds and regions where the levels are quite high.

For the average person in the United States, where we are talking about these very low parts per trillion type of levels in the water, it's unlikely that those levels are going to lead to serious illness.

Unfortunately, it's very challenging to study and in all such cases, we want to reduce the exposure to essentially the lowest level possible. There are certainly no health benefits to exposure.

So, we want to keep the level as low as possible, but it is unlikely that anyone is going to suffer significant illness from exposure to the sorts of levels that are being put forward by the EPA is safe.

The most important thing now is for communities and water systems and, also, for individuals who are on well water to get tested. Unfortunately, testing is not something that has been widely available until recently. And of course, it costs some amount of money if you're having to test your own water supply. But hopefully, with these limits being put forward by the EPA, water systems like Dallas Water or Fort Worth Water municipal systems will begin putting out the data for the levels of PFAS in the drinking water supply.


PFAS Study

Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS)

‘Forever chemicals’ are in Fort Worth’s drinking water. Here’s how the city plans to address new regulations

Fort Worth to join growing list of cities suing manufacturers over ‘forever chemicals’

Sam Baker is KERA's senior editor and local host for Morning Edition. The native of Beaumont, Texas, also edits and produces radio commentaries and Vital Signs, a series that's part of the station's Breakthroughs initiative. He also was the longtime host of KERA 13’s Emmy Award-winning public affairs program On the Record. He also won an Emmy in 2008 for KERA’s Sharing the Power: A Voter’s Voice Special, and has earned honors from the Associated Press and the Public Radio News Directors Inc.