Expert Commentary

7 tips for covering stories about PFAS ‘forever chemicals’ in drinking water (and a list of reporting resources)

The "forever chemicals" issue touches many journalistic beats. To help inform news coverage of the topic, we enlisted advice from several researchers and journalists who study and cover PFAS.

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Researchers are learning more about the adverse impacts on the environment and human health of PFAS, shorthand for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances. Nicknamed “forever chemicals” because they are difficult to destroy, they are widely used in everything from cosmetics to clothing to firefighting foam. Government agencies are picking up the pace to regulate their use.

Tap water is one of the main ways humans encounter PFAS. At least 45% of tap water in the United States is contaminated with one or more PFAS, researchers from the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) estimate in a study published this summer.

The PFAS issue touches many journalistic beats, including business, consumer, environment, health, infrastructure, legal and local services. So chances are good that if you’re a journalist, you’ll encounter PFAS in your reporting.

To help inform news coverage of the topic, we enlisted advice from researchers and journalists including Kelly Smalling, a research chemist at the U.S. Geological Survey and lead author of the aforementioned study; Linda Birnbaum, the former director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and the National Toxicology Program; E.A. Crunden, a reporter for Politico’s E&E News who covers water issues; Barbara Moran, a climate and environment correspondent at WBUR in Boston who has reported extensively on PFAS; Rebecca Fuoco, the director of science communications at Green Science Policy Institute; and Jamie DeWitt, a professor of pharmacology and toxicology at East Carolina University who follows PFAS closely.

1. Start with the basics.

Journalists should be aware that PFAS are “a complicated class of over 12,000 man-made chemicals with distinct properties making them resistant to degradation and persistent in the environment,” Smalling said in an email interview. “They have been manufactured since the 1940’s but until recently, information on health implications were limited.” 

Journalists also should know and note why PFAS are nicknamed “forever chemicals.” It’s because they stick around for a long time due to their structure. They have a chain of linked carbon and fluorine atoms, with this combination being one of the strongest bonds in chemistry. By contrast, proteins and sugar compounds have relatively weak bonds, allowing the body to easily disassemble them. Manmade PFAS compounds don’t degrade under typical conditions in the environment or the body.

The compounds have likely wound their way into the environment in the decades since their invention, including into sources of water used for drinking worldwide. In recent decades, certain kinds of PFAS chemicals have been linked to serious health issues, including potentially higher risk for some cancers, autoimmune diseases, thyroid issues, liver disease, fetal complications, vaccine resistance and high cholesterol, among other concerns.

It’s worth “several hours of your time one day to bone up on the basics,” especially if you don’t have a science or health coverage background, says WBUR’s Moran.

This page from the Interstate Technology Regulatory Council, a state-led coalition with public and private members from all 50 states and Washington D.C. is a good place to start, she says.

“It contains a lot of straight-up, detailed PFAS info, and even an introductory video to get people started,” Moran notes. 

Many universities with scientists who research PFAS also have good resources for journalists, according to Dewitt, Moran and Crunden. Moran recommends Northeastern University’s PFAS Project Lab website. It includes news, background, a newsletter and information on upcoming conferences. DeWitt recommends the North Carolina State Center for Environmental Health Effects of PFAS or The University of Rhode Island’s STEEP (Sources, Transport, Exposure and Effects) website.

For health-specific information, start with the comprehensive 2022 National Academies report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. The nonprofit Silent Spring Institute “can also be very helpful, and they are doing interesting research on the long-term health effects of drinking PFAS-contaminated drinking water,” Moran says.

The EPA and other agencies offer a plethora of information on government studies and upcoming rules. Those include the Food and Drug Administration,  the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Defense Department.

2. Note what’s happening with PFAS regulation on a national and local level.

In March, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency took a major step by proposing limits on six kinds of PFAS in drinking water under the national Safe Water Drinking Act. If enacted, the rule would cover the first new contaminant under the act since the 1990s. The EPA intends to issue the final rules by the end of the year. The new regulations, if finalized, won’t apply to private wells, notes Birnbaum.

The lower levels will likely require more than half of municipal water systems to install filtration devices, she explained in an e-mail interview.

Though the proposed rule would be the first to regulate PFAS in drinking water at a national level, half of all U.S. states already either regulate or are moving to regulate PFAS in drinking water, according to Safer States, a public advocacy group that tracks state legislation and policy.

3. Be specific and careful with your terminology.

It’s important to note that the umbrella term PFAS covers  more than 12,000 kinds of man-made chemicals,  an omission that pops up in some coverage, said Crunden.

The EPA proposed rule, for instance, applies to six kinds of those 12,000 PFAS chemicals, “and even within that there are thresholds” for the other PFAS that the EPA seeks to regulate as mixtures, Crunden said in an email interview.

Specificity also is important when reporting on the health risks of PFAS. “Any strong PFAS reporting lays out what we do know versus what we don’t re: the science and health implications,” Crunden explained. “Reporters should not buy into saying 12,000+ chemicals ‘cause cancer’; that simply has not been proven yet and research is limited. But good PFAS journalism should see you comfortably empowered to say at least two chemicals are strongly linked to cancer, and that there are concerns about the broader family, which also pose a number of other health issues.”

Another terminology clarification: Toxins is the correct term for naturally occurring poisonous substances, Crunden explained, so it’s not accurate to refer to PFAS as toxins. PFAS are man-made, which makes them toxicants, not toxins. “Toxic chemicals” would also be an accurate way to describe PFAS.

4. Keep your accuracy radar on high and double-check what sources say.

“A good way to get a feel for accuracy is to sense how much someone hedges their statements,” Crunden noted. “Advocates, while well-meaning, will tend to oversell something (remember, saying something ‘causes cancer’ is an enormous statement and VERY hard to prove scientifically). Industry members, by contrast, will downplay things significantly.”

You can find tips on how to characterize research findings accurately in this tip sheet from The Journalist’s Resource.

Even scientists can make mistakes, especially those not steeped in PFAS research, says Jamie DeWitt, a professor of pharmacology and toxicology at East Carolina University who follows PFAS closely.

“Listen very carefully, because in the world of PFAS and some worlds of science, some words sound very similar,”  DeWitt said. “Make sure to check what your scientists say. Because I’ve seen some scientists get interviewed on the topic, who aren’t really engaged in PFAS science. And they’ve made some really simple mistakes.”

5. Befriend a toxicologist.

Find a public health, public works or university toxicologist familiar with PFAS and ask to sit down with them, DeWitt, Crunden and Moran recommend – especially one who specializes in drinking water.

Many cities and towns have someone whose job it is to know the rules and the science. If you can’t find a local government toxicologist, find someone at a university who can be your  “check on things,” Moran says.

That helps with PFAS science, whether it be tied to the environment or health, Dewitt says.

“I don’t think that necessarily journalists get things wrong, but they might not talk to scientists to have all of the details correct because PFAS science is really complex,” DeWitt says.

Universities with research departments often have PFAS experts that can be good sounding boards, even if you’re not quoting them, Crunden notes.

“Fact-check everything someone tells you and normalize having some go-to scientist sources you trust,” Crunden said. “Researchers attached to universities are some of the most reliable, in my opinion.”

6. Monitor academic research, keeping in mind that much of it never makes it into the news media.

The pace of research is picking up in areas including human health, techniques to better destroy or degrade PFAS chemicals, and in gathering data for where they are most pervasive in the environment, water and other products.

Still, just a fraction of scientific and academic research makes it into the media, according to a study published in July 2023 in the journal Environmental Health led by researchers from the nonprofit Green Science Policy Institute who studied published papers on human health and PFAS.

Of 273 peer-reviewed epidemiological studies on PFAS and human health  published between 2018 and 2020, fewer than 8% issued a press release, the researchers found. Studies with press releases were 20 times more likely to wind up in news stories.

A good practice is to create alerts on services like PubMed and Eureka Alert! Many scientific studies are published behind a firewall. But journalists often can get access to scientific papers for free – if they know how to ask. This piece from The Journalist’s Resource outlines how to set up free accounts with several top academic journal publishers.

This research roundup and explainer, published as a companion to this tip sheet, summarizes several studies on where PFAS is found in drinking water geographically, health impacts, the efficacy of consumer water filters, new methods of destroying PFAS, and racial disparities in PFAS exposure.

“As papers are published, you can go through them to see if anything stands out to you,” says Fuoco, the lead author of the Green Science study whose full-time job is to publicize PFAS studies on human health. “And there’s always a corresponding author who has contact information.”

7. Go to a public water board or local government meeting where PFAS is being discussed, or attend state hearings.

As with any topic, some of the best story ideas come from meeting people you wouldn’t normally encounter just working the phones or doing online research, Moran says.

“If your state is considering legislation, try to attend the hearings or watch or listen to them, because that’s where you get good story ideas,” she says.

One way to communicate the situation clearly is to focus on a linear storyline, such as an area where water is provided through public wells, which are less studied and regulated than municipal water systems. A single water system, community or family’s story can be a good way to wrap your head around it,” Moran says.

For journalists interested in covering PFAS legislation as a statewide issue, Moran recommends looking at Safer State’s 2023 website of current and anticipated actions across the country.

The National Conference of State Legislatures has state-by-state information on PFAS and drinking water. And the map and key issue page from the advocacy group Environmental Working Group are also good places to start.

Reporting resources

Information from the EPA and other U.S. government agencies:

Start with the main PFAS page, an explanation of PFAS chemicals, the agency’s “strategic roadmap” for PFAS chemicals and the page outlining materials tied to the draft regulation announced in March.

Also see this March report from the White House National Science and Technology Council across agencies.

This graphic from the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry shows the “PFAS family tree.”

The EPA also offers information on:

  • Water filter use and steps consumers can take to cut their PFAS exposure
  • Water testing
  • Health advisories
  • Long-term health effects and environmental risks
  • Details of its fifth water•testing efforts under the agency’s unregulated contaminant monitoring rule which will provide information on 29 kinds of PFAS chemicals
  • Comments on the proposed drinking water rule can be found on Sort through to find a local community, business, government or other entities. Often, the commentary has contact information for the author or authors.

Information on individual U.S. states:
Other useful information:
  • The American Chemistry Council’s webpage on PFAS chemicals

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