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U-High Midway

The Student News Site of University of Chicago Laboratory High School

U-High Midway

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Constant danger: ‘Forever chemicals’ pose grave harm

Delaney Connell
PFAS, cancer-prone chemicals, are in many of the products people use daily, and once consumed, they last “forever.”

Pots, pans, clothing, tablecloths, packaging, wrappers, toiletries, makeup, cell phones, medicines — the list of chemically dangerous products goes on and on.  

From the nonstick pans we use to cook our food, to the stain-resistant clothing we wear every day, almost every human-made product contains “forever chemicals” — chemicals that will reside in our bodies forever. They are more scientifically known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS. 

Despite the extreme abundance of PFAS in everyday products and resources, much of the public is highly unaware of the dangers and consequences that come with exposure to these chemicals.

PFAS are in all nonstick, waterproof and stain-resistant products, and they can contaminate other substances people consume — like drinking water. PFAS enter our bodies when we breathe, eat, drink or touch them.

Once created, and in our bodies, PFAS are extremely difficult to break down because they have a linked chain of carbon and fluorine atoms. These bonds are very strong and do not degrade, ultimately earning PFAS the nickname “forever chemicals.”

Jiajun Luo, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Chicago, has done research on PFAS and the health effects that result from exposure.

“PFAS, they’re manmade, they’re not natural,” Dr. Luo said in an interview with the Midway. “PFAS entered human society less than 100 years ago, so many things are not known — especially the health effects of PFAS.”

Cancers, endocrine system disruptions, neurodevelopmental disorders (autism, ADHD), fertility issues, kidney and liver diseases, and immune and thyroid function disruptions are just a few of the many health effects that have been proven to occur after exposure to PFAS. 

Linda Birnbaum, former director of the National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences, recognizes how concerning PFAS are to society as a whole. 

“You can’t prove on an individual basis, it’s a public health issue.” Dr. Birnbaum said in an interview with the Midway. “You have to look at populations of people. And what you see is increased risk for populations.”

While the Environmental Protection Agency and Food and Drug Administration have some safety regulations on PFAS and are working to implement more, Dr. Birnbaum understands how difficult it is to limit chemicals as widespread as PFAS.

“We have the best policies, the best regulations, the best laws that money can buy.” Dr. Birnbaum said. “I think it just takes a very long time for anything to go into place.” 

While government action is one step toward improvement, the public must also be aware of the issue.

“I see articles from The New York Times, Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal — all these newspapers have reported PFAS.” Dr. Luo said. “That’s a good sign. We see some efforts to inform the public about PFAS and PFAS exposure, but this may not be enough.”

To help minimize their risk of exposure, individuals can stop using nonstick, waterproof and stain-resistant products; drink filtered water and spread awareness. However, this is only a small fraction of what is needed to completely restrict exposure.   

“It’s very hard, since they’re everywhere, for the individual to limit their exposure.” Dr. Birnbaum said. “We really need policy changes for that to happen.”

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About the Contributors
Jaya Alenghat
Jaya Alenghat, City Life Editor
Jaya Alenghat is a member of the Class of 2025 and serves as an assistant editor. She began journalism in the 2022-23 school year as a sophomore. Her favorite story she has written is “In finding community, English teacher provides comfort for Latinx students.” Outside of journalism, she enjoys playing tennis, reading and spending time with friends and family. Awards: 2024 Scholastic Press Association of Chicago, sports news story: excellent 2024 Columbia Scholastic Press Association Gold Circle Award: Certificate of merit, sports features, “Muslim student athletes navigate fasting during Ramadan while maintaining physical endurance” 2023 Journalism Education Association National Student Media Contests, Boston convention: Excellent, news writing
Delaney Connell
Delaney Connell, Photographer
Delaney Connell is a beginning photojournalist and a member of the Class of 2026. Her favorite part of photojournalism is taking photos for school sports and school events. Outside of photojournalism, Delaney enjoys taking walks with her dog, talking with her brother and cooking.

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