Most Americans do not know what perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, known as “forever chemicals,” are or have knowledge of their potential associated risks, a new survey shows.

Perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are a category of thousands of manufactured chemicals and an emerging concern to environmental and human health. They are called “forever chemicals” because their bonds between carbon and fluorine molecules, one of the strongest chemical bonds possible, make their removal and breakdown very difficult.

“This is the first survey of its kind, and what we found is that the vast majority of people do not have a clear understanding of PFAS,” says Allen Berthold, interim director at the Texas Water Resources Institute (TWRI), and lead author of the study published in PLOS ONE.

PFAS compounds have been used in industry and products since the 1940s, including fire extinguishing foam, nonstick cookware, food wrappers, and many other consumer goods. Levels of PFAS compounds have also been detected in food and water supplies.

In March, the US Environmental Protection Agency, proposed a national standard for PFAS in drinking water. As communities grapple with how to ensure their water supplies do not contain unsafe levels of PFAS, most consumers are completely unaware there is an issue with these chemicals.

“When I ask an audience at a public presentation if they’ve ever heard of PFAS, usually only a few people from a room of 100 will say yes, and that’s fairly consistent with these survey results,” Berthold says. “PFAS in drinking water has received media and regulatory attention this year, but the general public’s awareness of the contaminant had not been measured until this research.”

For the study, the researchers measured and analyzed US residents’ knowledge of PFAS, experience with PFAS, and perceptions of potential environmental and health risks related to PFAS forever chemicals.

Notable findings included:

  • 45.1% of respondents had never heard of PFAS and did not know what they are, and 31.6% responded that they had heard of PFAS but did not know what they are.
  • 11.5% knew their community had been exposed to PFAS.
  • 97.4% did not believe their drinking water had been affected by PFAS.

Read the full article about risks of forever chemicals by Leslie Lee at Futurity.