Part 1: PFAS: What Are They

Now known, now quantified, their dangerous presence was once quietly floating under the radar. Quiet, indicates Rainer Lohmann, a University of Rhode Island (URI) researcher, is no longer an option for communities increasingly concerned about PFAS, a group of synthetic substances, in drinking water. “Reach up, reach out,” advises Lohmann, lead scientist on STEEP — Sources, Transport, Exposure & Effects of PFAS — a partnership project of the URI Coastal Institute to understand, analyze, and address just how harmful PFAs are to people and the environment. 

“Forever Chemicals: PFAS – What Are They?” is the first of an eight-part STEEP video shorts series, “Silent Chemicals, Loud Science,” that explores problems posed by PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances), explains how STEEP science is shedding light on the issues, and offers practical and positive steps for making our daily lives safer. The first video illustrates the potency of the persistent chemicals — clear, invisible foams and coatings used to reduce stickiness in household items like pots and pans, or to make clothes or take-out containers water resistant — and the harm they pose to drinking water supplies.

“It takes so little of these chemicals to have an effect,” says Lohmann, an oceanographer with a chemistry focus. An impactful dose is a “tablespoon of salt in an Olympic sized swimming pool,” and “enough to cause health effects down the road.” Some states are taking notice; New Jersey, Maine and Vermont, for example, aren’t waiting for the federal government to create regulations to protect drinking water from PFAS, and are setting safer exposure limits themselves. Water crosses state and physical boundaries, says Lohmann, so it makes sense for nearby states — Massachusetts could be next, while Rhode Island is holding out — to cooperate in establishing limits.

And we can all help protect our water from “forever chemicals,” says Lohmann, offering options: Learn about what is in public drinking water, test private wells, and request state and federal decision makers to protect these resources. “Educate yourself,” he urges, with the many materials here on the STEEP website.

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