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More than 57,000 sites across the U.S. are likely contaminated with PFAS, a class of chemicals linked to cancer, birth defects, and liver damage, a new study finds.

PFAS (per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances) are added to products to help them resist heat, moisture, and stains, and they can be found in nonstick cookware, water-repellent clothing, stain-resistant fabrics, firefighting foams, and many other items.

While high-quality data from tests for PFAS pollution is in short supply, researchers say it is safe to assume that many sites have been contaminated. These include industrial facilities that manufacture PFAS, airports and military sites that use PFAS-laden firefighting foams, and wastewater treatment plants, as PFAS can often be found in sewage. Drawing on publicly available data, scientists identified 57,412 sites that are likely contaminated.

“We know that PFAS testing is very sporadic, and there are many data gaps in identifying known sites of PFAS contamination. That’s why the ‘presumptive contamination’ model is a useful tool in the absence of existing high-quality data,” Alissa Cordner, co-director of the PFAS Project Lab at Northeastern University and a coauthor of the paper, said in a statement. The findings were published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology Letters.

Known as “forever chemicals,” PFAS do not break down easily and can accumulate in human bodies. Research reviewed by the EPA shows that exposure to PFAS may, among other things, decrease fertility, produce developmental delays in children, reduce the body’s ability to fight infection, raise cholesterol levels, and increase the risk of developing prostate, kidney, or testicular cancer.

“Not only do we all have PFAS in our bodies, but we also know that PFAS affects almost every organ system,” Dr. Linda Birnbaum, former director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and coauthor of the paper, said in a statement. “It is essential that we understand where PFAS are in our communities so that we can prevent exposures.”


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