Since the new year, elevated levels of toxic chemicals have been found in beef sold to schools in Michigan, in the drinking water of several New Hampshire towns, and even in the produce from organic farms in Maine. All belong to a class of compounds called per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS. These “forever chemicals” were first manufactured in the 1940s, and gained popularity for their water- and grease-repellent properties. They do not break down naturally. Instead, they accumulate—in water, soil, animals, and people.
PFAS bioaccumulation has been linked to several types of cancer, liver damage, birth defects, and weakened immune response. Manufacturers have so far thwarted regulatory efforts by using tricks that seem to be pulled straight from the Big-Tobacco playbook: they withhold in-house studies that warn of their products’ risks; fund research that downplays the chemicals’ danger; or replace specific PFAS with others that are ostensibly safer but haven’t been rigorously tested, and often turn out to be just as dangerous. This strategy works because, according to independent researchers and the Environmental Defense Fund, the Federal Drug Administration “does not demand sufficient safety data up front and [has] no systematic reassessment to determine whether chemicals are safe after they are sent to the market.”