PFAS and cancer: The truth behind 'forever chemicals'

The Biden administration on Wednesday finalized strict limits on certain so-called "forever chemicals" in drinking water that will require utilities to reduce them to the lowest level they can be reliably measured. Officials say this will reduce exposure for 100 million people and help prevent thousands of illnesses, including cancers.

The rule is the first national drinking water limit on toxic PFAS, or perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, which are widespread and long-lasting in the environment.

What are ‘forever chemicals’ or PFAS? 

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Perflouroalkyl and polyflouroalkyl substances – PFAS – are a group of thousands of man-made chemicals used to make non-stick surfaces like Teflon pans and make other things stain repellent. They repel grease, oil, water and heat. You can find them used in cookware, clothes, cosmetics, food packaging, carpets and fire suppression foam.

"PFAS will never degrade in the environment, which has led to them and other PFAS being called the ‘forever chemicals,'" explained Ian Cousins, Ph.D., of the Department of Environmental Science at Stockholm University and author of a 2022 study.

Drinking water from nearly half of U.S. faucets likely contains "forever chemicals" that may cause cancer and other health problems, according to a 2023 government study.

RELATED: Study finds 'forever chemicals' including PFAS in popular bandage brands

What is the link between PFAS and cancer?

The chemicals are linked to serious health problems like cancers, liver and heart damage, compromised immune systems, high cholesterol and developmental issues in kids. Mallory pointed to Oakdale, Minnesota where PFAS contaminated the drinking water. 

"Cancer was found to be a far more likely cause of death in children in Oakdale than in neighboring communities," Mallory said. "Those victims include Amara Stranding, who spent her final months calling for action. After years of battling tumors and more than 20 surgeries, Amara passed away one year ago this month, just before her 21st birthday."

PFAS pollution worldwide

In 2022, scientists released a study that found PFAS pollution in rainwater samples across the globe even in remote areas like Tibet and Antarctica.

The study pointed out that in 22 years, the PFOA (a specific PFAS) guideline for West Virginia dropped by a factor of 37.5 million to the current EPA level. The current level is lower than every rainwater sample taken for the study worldwide and 14 times lower than the lowest level found on the Tibetan Plateau.

The Associated Press and FOX Weather contributed to this report. This story was reported from Los Angeles.