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A community guide to address forever chemicals pollutionBY HUDA ALKAFFWhat can you do when you learn that your drinking water is contaminated with a toxic substance? I asked myself this question when my city, West Bend, Wisc., issued a press release in June 2022 that at least one groundwater well, the source of drinking water for many residents, had been shut down because of PFAS (per-and poly-fluoroalkyl substances) contamination. In the past, the other two wells that are now the drinking water’s main source have also had elevated PFAS levels. So how can we ensure that our water is safe to drink? This is something I’m still trying to answer.WHAT IS PFAS? Fluorinated chemicals known as PFAS are a class of about 9,000 man-made toxic chemicals used in a vast number of water-, heat- and stain-resistant products. Having been around since the 1940s, they are also known as “forever chemicals” because they stick around in our bodies and the environment. We are talking about this now in part because DuPont, 3M and other chemical manufacturers have covered up evidence of PFAS’ negative impacts since the 1960s. PFAS can last for years in our bodies, leading to a dangerous build up over time. Some of the most studied ones, such as PFOA (per-fluoro-octanoic acid) and PFOS (per-fluoro-octane-sulfonic acid), do not degrade naturally in the environment. Even wastewater treatment plants cannot break them down. This probably doesn’t come as a surprise to some people, given that PFAS are a group of chemicals used to make fluoropolymer coatings and products that resist heat, oil, stains, grease and water. Experts are still learning about how bad PFAS are for us. So far, studies show that at high enough levels, some PFAS chemicals have serious health effects, including decreased fertility, hormonal changes, increased cholesterol, weakened immune system response, increased cancer risk, higher risk for high blood pressure and growth and learning delays in infants and children. If you are wondering how to avoid PFAS chemicals, the answer is simple: you cannot. PFAS are found everywhere from cosmetics to outdoor gear, non-stick pans, food wrappers, sunscreen, shampoo, electronics, wires, cables, computer chips, dental floss and countless other everyday items. They’re also present in the firefighting foam used on military bases and commercial airports. As a result, over 95% of U.S. residents have PFAS in their bodies. Drinking water is one of the most common ways we get exposed to them. In fact, PFAS has been found in the tap water of at least 16 million people in 33 states — including in the drinking water supplies of major cities like New York, Washington, D.C. and Chicago — as well as in the groundwater in at least 38 states. In fact, PFAS are found in rainwater worldwide.