KINGSTON, R.I. (WPRI) — You may have heard of PFAS, or per- and polyfluorinated substances, but what are they?
The so-called “forever chemicals” are a diverse group of thousands of chemicals used in hundreds of types of products.
“All of us have PFAS in our blood,” University of Rhode Island Professor Dr. Rainer Lohmann said. “We’re breathing them in right now.”
Dr. Lohmann said while they are unavoidable, he’s dedicated his career to running a research center in his lab.
“The biggest funding we have at URI is through the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, so we have a superfund dedicated just to PFAS, and in it, we look at the resources, transfer and effects on PFAS — we call it STEEP,” he explained.
While these chemicals last forever, Dr. Lohmann said they haven’t always been around.
“Teflon, which is probably the most famous of all the chemicals, was found in the 40s used in the Manhattan Project and found its way into Teflon frying pans or Gortex coating for textiles.”
Dr. Lohmann told 12 News he still uses a Teflon pan, you just have to use it properly and not let it overheat. Other items that have emitted PFAS over the years include old pizza boxes and microwave popcorn bags.
Through research and politicians pushing for change, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency enforced stricter rules.
According to Dr. Lohmann, high exposure to PFAS has been linked to testicular cancer, kidney cancer, and issues related to the development of immune systems.
“All of those together have fairly strict regulations on drinking water,” said Dr. Lohmann, with the most concerning being those who use private wells.
“Typically exposure that is close to industrial facilities, maybe those that were exposed to the drinking water from military installations, that’s somewhat unique high exposures,” he continued. “For us, hopefully, no high effect.”
In the future, he hopes companies will switch to safer alternatives for their products, while efforts continue on properly identifying and containing chemicals that already exist.
Last year, Rhode Islanders voted to knock down the building where Lohmann’s lab is, to make way for a state-of-the-art lab that matches the type of research this team is doing for a safer world.