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When I was 12 years old, I sat inside a raucous tent revival in West Texas, gripping my seat in fear that a traveling evangelist would accuse me of killing my father.

A healthy former Air Force pilot who had averaged an eight-minute mile in the New York City Marathon, my father had just been diagnosed with advanced colorectal cancer and been given a short time to live. Nothing about his predicament made sense to our family at the time. He was 38, a nonsmoker and nondrinker, with no history of cancer in his family.

My parents were conservative evangelicals deeply skeptical of the medical industry, and his diagnosis kicked their beliefs into high gear. When doctors couldn't answer our questions — Why did Dad have cancer? What could we do? — we sought out faith healers who did. Traveling evangelists and local preachers claimed that the cancer was, in fact, a satanic attack. This gave us a way out: We simply had to muster enough faith to believe a miracle was possible and God would heal him.

What no one in my family knew at the time was that for most of his life my father had been exposed to perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, the synthetic compounds known collectively as PFAS, which have been linked to increased risk of certain cancers. His fallow muscle, jaundiced skin and weight loss were very likely because of the decades-long accumulation of carcinogenic chemicals in the drinking water at the military sites where he had lived and worked since his childhood.

The environmental violence exacted by PFAS, like the effects of radiation and polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, can be difficult to prove. Only a few studies have examined the relationship between PFAS exposure and colorectal cancer (though the Yale School of Public Health has estimated that around 80% of cases are linked to environmental exposure). But on April 10, the Environmental Protection Agency announced the first federal mandate to limit the level of six PFAS in tap water. Going forward, water systems where they are detected will be required to remove them. Michael Regan, the EPA administrator, called the announcement "life-changing," and for me it was — it validated what I had long suspected: that exposure to these chemicals can be devastating.

But if six PFAS sounds like a small number, that's because it is. At this point, more than 12,000 formulations of PFAS exist and only a fifth of Americans' PFAS exposure comes from drinking water. That means additional PFAS that have not been targeted for regulation persist in our water, soil and consumer products, leaving many Americans vulnerable to exposure. To reduce the risk they pose, we need far more comprehensive mandates that test, monitor and limit the entire class of PFAS chemicals.

In the 1930s and '40s, manufacturing companies like DuPont and 3M began developing these substances for use as repellent in nonstick items including Teflon pans, Scotchgard and firefighting foams. But the chemical bonds that make them so useful as a repellent also make PFAS nearly indestructible; it's why they have been labeled "forever chemicals." They don't break down once they enter the environment, and instead they accumulate in water, soil and our bodies.

Firefighting foams have been a major source of PFAS contamination since their development in the 1960s. In collaboration with the U.S. Navy, 3M produced foams that the Defense Department sprayed in routine fire drills and emergencies around the country. The chemicals eventually leached into groundwater at military sites like the ones where my father lived and water sources surrounding them. In 2000, 3M began phasing out its use of perfluorooctanyl sulfonate, a component of PFAS-containing firefighting foam, citing health concerns. Still, it was not until 2023 that the Department of Defense was banned from purchasing foams containing PFAS.

The EPA's move this month to regulate PFAS is a significant next step, but even in places where the groundwater is not highly contaminated, we will all still be exposed to unregulated PFAS without further government action. The chemicals are used in a staggering number of consumer products, including carpet, pizza boxes, microwave popcorn, yoga pants, bags and toiletries like dental floss, shampoo and cosmetics. They are still key ingredients in some firefighting foams; many fire departments still use these foams in emergencies like chemical plant fires. And in Texas, thousands of pounds of PFAS are being shot into the ground to lubricate drill bits for fracking.

We already know that high levels of exposure to PFAS have been linked to disastrous health impacts like birth defects, liver damage and many kinds of cancer. Yet the rate at which PFAS are being released into the environment far outpaces toxicologists' ability to study their consequences for human health. Some 31% of groundwater samples in places with no known source of PFAS have shown contamination levels that exceed EPA limits. And in some locations with established sources, like military and industrial sites, the levels of PFAS are far higher than the standard set by the new rule.

We now need a federal ban on firefighting foams containing PFAS and regulations that are enforceable by law to limit not just specific compounds in our water, but the whole class of highly pervasive chemicals. Mandates should identify the historical sources of pollution to hold industries accountable and avoid further straining the communities exposed to PFAS with the additional cost of their cleanup. On Friday, the EPA helpfully put two PFAS compounds under its Superfund authority, shifting accountability for cleanup from taxpayers to polluters.

I am now 39, the age my father was when he died from cancer in 1998. Nearly 20 years passed before I discovered that the Defense Department is responsible for a significant portion of the PFAS pollution in the U.S. and that dangerously high levels of PFAS have been confirmed or are suspected of contaminating the drinking water at military sites from Guam to Universal City, Texas, including where my father had lived as a child and worked as an Air Force officer. My father was no longer an officer when he was diagnosed, but the reality of PFAS exposure shows that we carry the traces of each place we've lived even after we've left.

This month's federal announcement cannot resurrect the dead. Still, it gives context to tragedies that made no sense at the time and sent my family into a desperate search for a miracle that never came.

I would never wish such a revelation on my 2-year-old son's generation. I would not have them blindly searching for answers that first manifest, as so often quests through oblivion do, in blaming one's self. This is exactly what companies like 3M and DuPont hope will continue happening — that those of us who were first exposed will still bear the burden of proof.

We should not have to risk repeated exposure to the most powerful bonds in organic chemistry caused by the willful negligence of industry each time we place our faith in a glass of water. Let's not wait for more long-term effects on our health before we act.

Kathleen Blackburn teaches creative nonfiction writing at the University of Chicago. She is the author of "Loose of Earth." This article originally appeared in the New York Times.