At Long Last, More Regulations For Forever Chemicals

12:19 minutes

A gavel on top of a model of Earth made out of recycled plastic and chemicals
Credit: Shutterstock

This week, the EPA proposed the first national standards for drinking water that would set limits on the amount of PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances) chemicals that would be allowed in water systems. There are thousands of different PFAS chemicals, which are often used industrially for properties such as heat, water and stain resistance—from fire-fighting foams to coatings on clothing and paper plates. They have come to be known as “forever chemicals” as they are extremely slow to break down in the environment. The chemicals have been linked to health problems, including cancer. 

Katherine Wu, staff writer for The Atlantic, joins Ira to talk about the proposed regulations and how such a sweeping rule might be implemented nationwide. Wu also discusses her latest article on COVID-19 origins, and genetic analysis that could tie the pandemic back to raccoon dogs in the Wuhan market.

They also talk about other news from the week in science, including research hinting at active volcanoes on Venus,  a study of the effects of COVID-19 on maternal health during pregnancy,  and research into curing HIV with stem cells from cord blood. Plus an explosion of seaweed, and the unveiling of a new space suit design.

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Segment Guests

Katherine J. Wu

Katherine Wu is a staff writer at The Atlantic based in Boston, Massachusetts.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. Later in the hour, how the pharma industry is using new AI tools to develop new drugs faster and cheaper. Plus, our complicated relationship with phosphorus.

But first, chemical news of another sort. This week, the EPA announced that it would move to tighten regulations on PFAS chemicals. Those are the so-called forever chemicals that have been linked to health problems and that are turning up all over the environment. Joining me now to talk about that and other stories from the week in science is Katherine Wu, staff writer at The Atlantic. Welcome back.

KATHERINE WU: Hello. Always good to be here.

IRA FLATOW: Nice to have you. All right. How big a deal is this EPA proposal?

KATHERINE WU: It is a pretty big deal. I mean, this is the first time that the EPA has really cracked down on PFAS, and they are going, basically, as low as they can. The plan, unless it is derailed, is to basically say you cannot have any detectable PFAS in the water from now on– or at least starting a few months from now, if this goes through.

IRA FLATOW: Tell us what the chemical is all about. Why are they around all these things?

KATHERINE WU: So, there’s a couple of things. First, if you basically check the blood of pretty much anyone, you will detect some levels of these chemicals. And part of the reason is once they get out into the environment, they pretty much stick around. The nickname of “forever chemicals” is pretty apt, because once they head out into the environment, they really don’t break down very well.

So if they are being produced in factories and then running off into the water, they will be there for quite a long time. And a lot of companies have used these. These chemicals are really good at repelling oil and water, and so they’re used in a lot of non-stick pans, water repellent clothing, things that are really a big part of our everyday lives. And they never go away.

IRA FLATOW: So what is the plan, then, to remove it from the water?

KATHERINE WU: It is going to be a massive infrastructural overhaul. I mean, certainly, part and parcel of this will inevitably have to be less production with PFAS, which a lot of companies have already been moving toward in recent years, because of the noted health effects– you know, since scientists have realized that they can cause all sorts of health issues, including, potentially, cancer to low birth weight babies, liver damage, fertility problems. A lot of companies have tried to replace them with safer alternatives.

But it is going to be in part up to water utilities. They will probably need to replace a lot of equipment and install specialized filters to remove the chemicals– which isn’t as easy as just sticking a Brita filter in everyone’s kitchen. It’s going to be pretty intense.

IRA FLATOW: And so what happens with this ruling? Do you think it’s going to be challenged by industry?

KATHERINE WU: It sounds like it already has. Unsurprisingly, the people who are slated to have to spend the most money to adjust to these new regulations have issued some complaints. They’re taking issue with some of the science linking PFAS to different health effects, and there will be some pushback.

The regulation is sort of open to public comment for the next couple of months, and we will see what happens. But I personally would be surprised if this doesn’t go through. There’s been a lot of support coming out for it, and people have been calling for this for a very long time.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. Let’s move on to something else. There’s been a lot of talk lately about the possible origins of the COVID-19 pandemic. Was it somehow connected to a research lab? Did it make the jump to humans from wild animals in a marketplace? You have a new story this week about some genetic analysis that could shed light on that question. Tell us about that.

KATHERINE WU: Yeah. So this is a very fresh off the presses story, and absolutely still developing. But exactly as you said, it’s been really hard to nail down exactly where this pandemic started. And part of the issue is there has been a lack of really direct evidence pinpointing the virus in a highly infectious setting where it could have jumped into several people at once, and then from there, really spread from person to person. One of the big venues where the pandemic is thought to have started by many scientists is the Huanan Wet Market, but what scientists have really been missing is evidence that there were infected wild animals there in a context where they could have infected people.

Now, this new evidence is not 100% of a slam dunk. We don’t yet have a virus isolated from a live animal at the time the pandemic began, for example. But basically, what scientists have done is they’ve looked at environmental samples– so swabs taken from around the market on surfaces, carts, freezers, that kind of thing– and looked for evidence of the virus’s genetic material in the same swab as genetic material from an animal. And that is a decent indication that the two were close enough for that animal to very likely be infected, and that would be a very parsimonious explanation for, hey, the virus is here. It has to have been in a living creature for it to be propagated around, and maybe that is a potential source for how people at that market got infected.

IRA FLATOW: Did they say what animal they think it came from?

KATHERINE WU: It’s very difficult to say definitively, but one of the biggest animals that came out of this new analysis is the raccoon dog, which is a fox-like creature with that kind of classic raccoon-ish bandit mask. And we know that these animals have been widely available at many wet markets throughout China over the years, and they are also bred for fur farming in the country.

IRA FLATOW: How reliable is the data? I mean, where did it come from? Who analyzed it?

KATHERINE WU: So this data was actually initially collected by Chinese researchers who were working very early on in the pandemic. They basically went to the Huanan Market shortly after it was shut down in January of 2020 and swabbed a bunch of surfaces there, hoping to basically pick up what was happening when people were probably getting infected in December, November of 2019. And they banked those sequences, and it was really only very recently that that raw data became available.

Chinese researchers had analyzed this data before, but they hadn’t previously pulled out this sort of animal data. So when researchers in the US and Canada and Australia and different parts of Europe got their hands on this raw data, they reanalyzed it and were able to pull out those raccoon dog sequences, as well as sequences from some other animals. But the raccoon dogs were the ones that really popped.

IRA FLATOW: So you have new data, some adding to the pile that we already have. I don’t know. Do you think this will ever be really answerable to anyone’s real satisfaction?

KATHERINE WU: Well, that’s a great question, and a really good way of framing it, because, yeah, it depends on who you’re asking, and it depends on what they really feel like they need to satisfy it. We can never go back in time and witness an animal infecting a human in real time if that is indeed what happened, and that makes this really, really difficult. I think there are some people very, very, very dug in on all sides of this, and it’s hard to say what will fully convince them. There’s been a lot of surprise that we are even getting new data at this point, three years in, and who knows what else could turn up.

IRA FLATOW: Well, you gave me a great way to segue to my next story, which is all about the news this week about Venus and a lesson in not throwing away your old data. Tell us about that.

KATHERINE WU: Yes. Serious takeaway from this episode is going to be, be a hoarder with your data. But yeah. Scientists during the pandemic were poring over old data taken from NASA’s Magellan mission from the early 1990s, and they were looking at all of these images that were taken on the planet’s surface between February and October of 1991, and they noticed that over the course of those eight months or so, there was this particular volcanic event.

It started out nice and circular and very neat-looking, and over time, it got warped. It doubled in size, and by the end of this, it just looked kind of wonky– a little bit messed up. And they ran a bunch of simulations trying to account for what could have caused this warping. And they concluded that, you know, really, the only thing that could cause this much change in such a short time– at least, on geological scales– was some sort of eruption, lava coming out of that vent, which means Venus is still volcanically active.

IRA FLATOW: Very surprising, right?

KATHERINE WU: Yeah. It’s the first direct evidence of this. I mean, scientists had presumed that maybe the planet was still volcanically active, but it was all sort of more of the circumstantial evidence prior to this. So this is pretty exciting.

IRA FLATOW: Pretty cool. Back here on Earth, let’s move to some other news– an advance in treating HIV, but it’s a bit technical. Can you weed us through that.

KATHERINE WU: The news this week is that this case report was finally published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal, but it’s been unfolding for quite some time. As you can imagine, when we are trying to determine if someone is cured of HIV, to declare someone cured is pretty tricky. But the idea here is this is one of only a handful of people that appears to have been cured of HIV so far.

And the big difference here is two things– the way in which this person was probably cured, and the demographic of this person. This was the first mixed-race woman to maybe have an HIV cure, and the way that she was cured is slightly different from some of the patients that we’ve maybe heard about before. You know, you’ve maybe heard about the Berlin patient, or the London patient.

IRA FLATOW: Right. Right.

KATHERINE WU: This is now the New York patient. And what’s happened before– there are people out there who are genetically resistant to HIV. The virus can’t get into their immune cells, because they have a genetic mutation that makes them actually lack the receptor the virus needs to get into cells. And so if they take the person who is living with HIV, get rid of their immune cells through chemotherapy or radiation, they can then take stem cells from the bone marrow of a donor and replace the recipient’s immune system, basically, by repopulating their body with fresh stem cells that will turn into immune cells that now have this genetic resistance.

The catch with that is if you’ve ever signed up for a bone marrow registry, you probably know that it is really, really, really tricky to get a match between donor and recipient. They have to be really, really, really genetically close. And what scientists have found so far is that a lot of the people who have been found with this genetic resistance are white, which potentially limits the recipient pool that the bone marrow can go into.

Now, what happened with this new patient is she was actually able to get stem cells still with that genetic resistance mutation, but from umbilical cord blood. And for whatever reason, the stem cells that come from umbilical cord blood are way more tolerant of donor-recipient mismatches than adult bone marrow. And that may just be because, you know, those freshly born cells are more flexible. Like, they’re newly born. They don’t have any biases yet. They’re chill with anything.

IRA FLATOW: There’s hope that approach can be more equitable. Let’s look to some future-looking news. NASA is looking ahead to a planned moon landing with a new spacesuit. That’s just what we need, right?

KATHERINE WU: Exactly. Got to end with some fashion-forward stuff.


So picture your classic spacesuit– super white, bulky, tough to move in, people are kind of just bopping around the moon, looking like the Michelin Man. We are way overdue for an upgrade on this. And it’s not just about the aesthetics, right?

These new spacesuits are made by a company called Axiom, and they’ve been designed to be way more flexible. Basically, at a showcase earlier this week, Axiom was showing off people modeling the suits doing squats and doing all sorts of contortions, showing that this is not only going to be easier to move in, but it’s also going to be accommodating of more body types, which is really exciting, because we are hoping to send people of more genders and more backgrounds and more body types to the moon.

IRA FLATOW: And the color? A wide range of modern runway colors, I imagine?

KATHERINE WU: So there is a catch here. The demos that they showed were these really sleek, grayish-black with these kind of blue and orange accents, looking very, very chic. But unfortunately, when we do take these suits to the moon, they do still have to be white, because they’ve got to reflect the sunlight and not absorb it.

IRA FLATOW: So you can get any color you want, as long as it’s white. Thank you.


IRA FLATOW: All right, Katie. Thank you for joining us. Always a pleasure to have you.

KATHERINE WU: Thanks so much. Always good to be here.

IRA FLATOW: Katherine Wu, staff writer at The Atlantic.

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