Most Americans unaware of ‘forever chemicals’ and their risks

"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," says Audrey McCrary. "So, a significant knowledge gap here needs to be addressed." (Credit: Getty Images)

Most Americans do not know what perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, known as “forever chemicals,” are or have knowledge of their potential associated risks, a new survey shows.

Perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are a category of thousands of manufactured chemicals and an emerging concern to environmental and human health. They are called “forever chemicals” because their bonds between carbon and fluorine molecules, one of the strongest chemical bonds possible, make their removal and breakdown very difficult.

“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,” says Allen Berthold, interim director at the Texas Water Resources Institute (TWRI), and lead author of the study published in PLOS ONE.

PFAS compounds have been used in industry and products since the 1940s, including fire extinguishing foam, nonstick cookware, food wrappers, and many other consumer goods. Levels of PFAS compounds have also been detected in food and water supplies.

PFAS in drinking water

In March, the US Environmental Protection Agency, proposed a national standard for PFAS in drinking water. As communities grapple with how to ensure their water supplies do not contain unsafe levels of PFAS, most consumers are completely unaware there is an issue with these chemicals.

“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 says. “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.”

For the study, the researchers measured and analyzed US residents’ knowledge of PFAS, experience with PFAS, and perceptions of potential environmental and health risks related to PFAS forever chemicals.

Notable findings included:

  • 45.1% of respondents had never heard of PFAS and did not know what they are, and 31.6% responded that they had heard of PFAS but did not know what they are.
  • 11.5% knew their community had been exposed to PFAS.
  • 97.4% did not believe their drinking water had been affected by PFAS.

Forever chemical awareness

In July, the US Geological Survey published research showing that at least 45% of the nation’s tap water was estimated to contain one or more types 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,” says coauthor Audrey McCrary, program specialist at TWRI. “So, a significant knowledge gap here needs to be addressed.”

The strongest predictor of PFAS awareness in the study was community exposure, says coauthor Michael Schramm, TWRI research specialist.

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

The respondents aware of community exposure were more likely to know PFAS sources, change their use of items with potential PFAS contamination, and answer that their drinking water sources were also contaminated with PFAS.

Researchers conducted the survey online, and 1,100 respondents from across the US participated. Schramm led the formal data analysis of the responses, and Berthold, McCrary and deVilleneuve developed the survey methodology and administration.

The study found no major differences when comparing PFAS knowledge, experience, and risk perceptions 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,” says corresponding author and research specialist Stephanie deVilleneuvede. “This research was a fact-finding effort and gives us baseline data moving forward as interest in PFAS remediation continues to grow.”

Texas Water Resources Institute is part of Texas A&M AgriLife Research, Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service, and the Texas A&M College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

Source: Texas A&M University