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“The Cut” is a weekly reporters notebook-type essay by an Ideastream Public Media content creator, reflecting on the news and on life in Northeast Ohio. What exactly does “The Cut” mean? It's a throwback to the old days of using a razor blade to cut analog tape. In radio lingo, we refer to sound bites as “cuts.” So think of these behind-the-scene essays as “cuts” from Ideastream's producers.

‘Forever chemicals’ are everywhere. How worried should we be?

Lauren Green
Ideastream Public Media

This is part of a special report on forever chemical contamination in Ohio. Ideastream Public Media reporters spent months investigating the impact of these chemicals to answer the question, "How worried should we be?" New radio stories will drop every Tuesday in January, 2024.

I first heard of PFAS, per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances, from Stephanie Czekalinski, deputy editor/news at Ideastream Public Media.

She had long wanted to report on the so-called "forever chemicals," a family of compounds best known for giving products like Teflon and Scotchgard their nonstick properties. I was immediately on board, having been an analytical chemist with a fondness for investigative journalism. Stephanie assembled our team, and we launched into the project

Our goal is to answer this question: "Given how widespread PFAS are, how worried should we be?"

I’ve found that getting a definitive answer to that question can be as slippery as a nonstick skillet.

The chemistry is daunting, even with my chemistry degree, and keeping track of the alphabet soup of PFAS varieties, their industrial uses, myriad health effects and exposure risks has taken some time to sort through.

Our team is parsing through studies of human populations exposed to Teflon precursors, asking consumers how they view the risks of PFAS-laden fish, and talking to municipal water systems confronted with expensive cleanups.

We’re also testing everyday consumer products to see if they contain PFAS.

Our special project, dubbed "PFAS Test Kitchen," sent samples of water cooked in Teflon skillets, fabric sprayed with Scotchgard and water-proofing spray, water-proof cosmetics and fast food wrappers to a local testing lab to see what we could find.

While we’re still sifting through the results, it’s safe to say PFAS are everywhere.

photo of testing setup
Abigail Bottar
Ideastream Public Media
Ideastream Public Media reporters Taylor Wizner, left, and Zaria Johnson sample several consumer products, including cosmetics and fast food wrappers, in the PFAS Test Kitchen.

In fact, many researchers say that virtually every human on the planet has some level of PFAS in their system due to their widespread industrial use.

This is a concern because "forever chemicals" live up to their name.

The chemistry that gives PFAS their nonstick properties also makes them resistant to environmental degradation. These chemicals aren’t found in nature and living systems like our own can’t break them down or process them. That means they accumulate in our bodies, causing inflammation and interfering with our body chemistry, particularly our immune system. The "forever" qualities of the chemicals also mean that they persist in the body, causing ailments years after exposure.

The 2019 film "Dark Waters" starring Mark Ruffalo documents one of the first legal cases against a manufacturer accused of poisoning a local community with PFAS. The movie is based on the book "Exposure," by Cincinnati lawyer Robert Bilott. It details his 20-year battle against DuPont, whose plant near Parkersburg, West Virginia, dumped PFAS into a landfill, killed dozens of downstream cattle and sickened the local population.

DuPont’s eventual settlement included funding of a massive public health assessment of nearly 70,000 people exposed to PFAS. That study directly linked the chemicals to ulcerative colitis, thyroid disease, heart disease, preeclampsia and two types of cancer, testicular and kidney. A recent $10 billion settlement with another PFAS manufacturer, 3M, provides resources to municipal water systems for cleanup technology, but officials from dozens of states say it’s not enough.

Another study we’re following tested fish from Ohio lakes and rivers and found an average of nearly 12,000 nanograms per kilogram (parts per trillion) in every perch and walleye in Lake Erie.

The total PFAS load in these popular food fish is often many times that number, essentially a lifetime’s worth of exposure for the average angler enjoying a fresh-cut filet.

The main source of PFAS contamination in water sources is decades of indiscriminate use of firefighting foams. These materials leaked PFAS into nearly every lake and river in Ohio and beyond. Ohio Environmental Protection Agency studies show detectable levels of PFAS in the water supplies of several local communities.

The slippery nature of PFAS is compounded by the lack of regulations and their continued use in countless products.

It’s a lot to absorb.

But we are working to make sure you get the information you need about PFAS and to accurately communicate the risks, without overblowing them.

So as they say on TV, stay tuned!

"The Cut" is featured in Ideastream Public Media's weekly newsletter, The Frequency Week in Review. To get The Frequency Week in Review, The Daily Frequency or any of our newsletters, sign up on Ideastream's newsletter subscription page.

Jeff St. Clair is the midday host for Ideastream Public Media.