We Regulate a Tiny Fraction of the 12,000 ‘Forever Chemicals.’ There’s a Better Way.

When I was 12 years old, I sat inside a raucous tent revival in West Texas, gripping my seat in fear that a traveling evangelist would accuse me of killing my father.

A healthy former Air Force pilot who’d averaged an eight-minute mile in the New York City Marathon, my father had just been diagnosed with advanced colorectal cancer and been given a short time to live. Nothing about his predicament made sense to our family at the time. He was 38, a nonsmoker and nondrinker, with no history of cancer in his family.

My parents were conservative evangelicals deeply skeptical of the medical industry, and his diagnosis kicked their beliefs into high gear. When doctors couldn’t answer our questions — Why did Dad have cancer? Whatcould we do? — we sought out faith healers who did. Traveling evangelists and local preachers claimed that the cancer was, in fact, a satanic attack. This gave us a way out: We simply had to muster enough faith to believe a miracle was possible and God would heal him.

What no one in my family knew at the time was that for most of his life my father had been exposed to perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, the synthetic compounds known collectively as PFAS, which have been linked to increased risk of certain cancers. His fallow muscle, jaundiced skin and weight loss were very likely because of the decades-long accumulation of carcinogenic chemicals in the drinking water at the military sites where he had lived and worked since his childhood.

The environmental violence exacted by PFAS, like the effects of radiation and polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, can be difficult to prove. Only a few studies have examined the relationship between PFAS exposure and colorectal cancer (though the Yale School of Public Health has estimated that around 80 percent of cases are linked to environmental exposure). But on April 10 the Environmental Protection Agency announced the first federal mandate to limit the level of six PFAS in tap water. Going forward, water systems where they are detected will be required to remove them. Michael Regan, the E.P.A. administrator, called the announcement “life-changing,” and for me it was — it validated what I’d long suspected, that exposure to these chemicals can be devastating.

But if six PFAS sounds like a small number, that’s because it is. At this point, more than 12,000 formulations of PFAS exist and only a fifth of Americans’ PFAS exposure comes from drinking water. That means additional PFAS that have not been targeted for regulation persist in our water, soil and consumer products, leaving many Americans vulnerable to exposure. To reduce the risk they pose, we need far more comprehensive mandates that test, monitor and limit the entire class of PFAS chemicals.

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