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New study highlights ubiquity of 'forever chemical' contamination in Great Lakes region: 'It's not something that has been studied that much'

Rain appears to be a major way the chemicals enter the Great Lakes.

Rain appears to be a major way the chemicals enter the Great Lakes.

Photo Credit: iStock

The cancer-causing chemicals that make our jackets waterproof and our pans nonstick are raining down on the Great Lakes, according to a new study detailed by the Guardian.

What's happening?

The study revealed an unsettling truth: Toxic PFAS, or "forever chemicals," are everywhere in the Great Lakes Basin. These chemicals, used in countless consumer products, are showing up in the region's air, rain, and water.

"We didn't think the air and rain were significant sources of PFAS in the Great Lakes' environment, but it's not something that has been studied that much," said Marta Venier, a co-author of the study from Indiana University.

PFAS earned the forever chemical label because they "usually take hundreds or thousands of years to break down." Once released into the environment, they continuously cycle through the air, water, and soil. Rain appears to be a major way the chemicals enter the Great Lakes.

Why are PFAS concerning?

The Great Lakes hold 95% of America's fresh water. But the constant presence of PFAS means trouble for the 30 million people who rely on the lakes for drinking water. The chemicals have been linked to serious health problems such as cancer and liver disease.

The study found that PFAS levels in rain were similar across the region, from cities to remote areas. This suggests the contamination is so widespread that nowhere is untouched. As scientists develop ways to detect more PFAS varieties, the measured levels will likely only increase.

While the human health impacts are still being studied, the ubiquity of these chemicals in our environment is extremely worrying. Fish consumption advisories are already common in the region because of PFAS. Many cities are grappling with contaminated drinking water. 

Left unchecked, PFAS will continue to accumulate over time, posing greater risks.

What's being done to stop the spread of PFAS?

Tackling the PFAS problem will require a multipronged approach.

We need stronger regulations to limit the use and release of these chemicals. Companies must be held accountable for PFAS contamination.

As individuals, we can reduce our exposure by avoiding products containing PFAS, such as certain nonstick pans, waterproof gear, and food packaging. Supporting businesses and policies aimed at phasing out forever chemicals also makes a difference.

Protecting the incredible resource that is the Great Lakes, and the health of everyone who depends on it, means getting serious about PFAS. The sooner we act, the better our chances of preventing irreversible damage.

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