Many of our everyday products contain highly toxic fluorinated chemicals known as per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). Used in commercial products since the 1940s, this family of thousands of long-lasting human-made chemicals breaks down very slowly over time. Because they contain an extremely strong carbon-fluorine bond, these chemicals do not readily degrade in the environment. For this reason, they have the nickname “forever chemicals.”
PFAS are commonly used around the globe in nonstick cookware, food wrappers, fire-fighting foams, fertilizers from sewage, and waterproofing or stain-repellent chemicals. They are widely used by many industries, including aerospace, automotive, textiles, construction, electronics, and the military. In addition, they have been found in the environment, including in drinking water supplies and waterways, and in wildlife, including fish and deer.
Unfortunately, these chemicals are very widespread. PFAS are found in the bloodstreams of 97% of Americans and may take years to leave the body. PFAS are linked to health problems including cancer, immune system disorders, and reproductive issues. As concern and awareness about these chemicals grow, a national crisis is emerging.
How am I exposed to PFAS?
Numerous drinking water sources are known to be contaminated with PFAS, but more research is needed to know the full scope of the issue. The Environmental Working Group tracking map shows that PFAS contaminate the drinking water sources of millions of people; however, the extent might be far greater. EWG scientists believe that PFAS is likely detectable in all major water supplies in the United States. While many sources have not been well tested, concern and awareness are growing across the globe. In the meantime, a variety of products that line our store shelves contain PFAS or are packaged in materials that contain them.
Non-stick cookware contains PFAS. Although the original chemical used to manufacture Teflon is no longer on the market, it is unknown if the new PFAS are safer alternatives. Paper and cardboard food wrappers for fast food and bakery goods are commonly treated with coatings containing PFAS to make these materials water and oil-resistant.
Fabric treatments for furniture and carpets, such as Stainmaster and Scotchgard, contain PFAS. Likewise, clothes that are water or stain-repellent, such as Gore-Tex boots and coats, and even many cosmetics and personal care products contain them also.
How can I reduce my exposure to these chemicals?
Although it’s nearly impossible to eliminate your exposure to PFAS, it is possible to minimize it. First, determine if your drinking water is contaminated with these chemicals. If your water is from the public drinking water system, determine if it’s been tested for PFAS by referring to the EWG interactive map. On the other hand, if your drinking water is from a private well, you will need to conduct the testing, ideally with a state-certified lab that uses methods developed by the EPA.
If you are concerned that your water has unsafe levels, use an NSF-certified water filter that removes PFAS. Ask your water utility what they are doing to reduce levels, such as changing drinking water sources or using filtration. Also, call your state health department or local environmental protection agency for guidance.
Because PFAS can collect in household dust, it’s helpful to vacuum rugs regularly, use a mop on floors, and wipe down surfaces with a damp cloth. Avoid purchasing stain-resistant furniture and carpets whenever possible. If you use non-stick pans, consider replacing them with cast iron or stainless steel cookware. In addition, support clothing brands that do not use PFAS in their clothing.
Either avoid fast food and takeout food or look for restaurants and retailers that are clearly taking steps to reduce PFAS exposure. For example, McDonald’s, Panera Bread, Starbucks, Taco Bell, Wendy’s, Whole Foods, and Burger King have created targets to eliminate the use of PFAS in food packaging. Also, avoid heating food in containers that may contain water and oil-resistant coatings, like the bagged version of microwave popcorn.
In addition, some cosmetic companies have voluntarily eliminated the use of PFAS in their products. Although the list is relatively short, these companies include Burt’s Bees, H&M, and Pacifica. Voicing your concern to companies that continue using these toxic chemicals can help encourage positive change.
Aren’t PFAS chemicals being phased out?
Although specific types of PFAS known as PFOS and PFOA are no longer on the market in the United States and Western Europe, researchers have not determined that their replacements, also part of the PFAS family, are safe. PFOS and PFOA contain eight carbon atoms and are known as long chains. By contrast, their replacements contain six carbon atoms and are known as “short-chain” PFAS. Yet DuPont admits that the short-chain chemical GenX causes cancerous tumors in lab animals, and a 2019 Auburn University study states that short chains may pose a greater health risk than long chains.
Thus, more research is needed to determine the human health effects of these chemicals, decrease community exposure to them, and identify high-risk populations. Ideally, policymakers, regulatory agencies, manufacturers, and consumers will then use this information to reduce human and environmental exposure.
Aren’t there laws that regulate the use of PFAS?
Although many of these chemicals provide certain benefits, the potential cost to human health and the environment is staggering. There are laws regulating some PFAS but others remain in use. Ultimately, local and national lawmakers need to create policies that protect individuals and communities from the health impacts of these toxic chemicals.
There is a recent bill introduced in the House to ban the intentional use of PFAS in cosmetics. Also, some states have taken strides to limit PFAS use in various consumer products. You can show your support for such legislation by contacting your lawmakers.
“State legislatures recognize the severity of the toxic PFAS crisis we’re facing and they’re taking action,” said Sarah Doll, national director of Safer States, in a statement. “States continue to lead the way in addressing these serious problems with urgency and innovative solutions.”
Ultimately, it is critical to dramatically reduce the use of these toxic chemicals as quickly as possible to stop them from accumulating in the environment. Certainly, cleanup efforts are also essential, as these chemicals are extremely persistent and have been in use for decades.
In the meantime, protect yourself by taking steps to reduce your exposure to PFAS. Write or call your elected officials and let them know you are concerned about these toxic chemicals and their presence in products you and your family are exposed to daily. Ask them to pass laws to regulate them, for phase-out programs, and for labeling to identify products that contain them. And urge them to ensure your drinking water is safe and to implement PFAS cleanup when necessary.
For a quick summary of the impacts of PFAS pollution, check out the following infographic from ConsumerNotice.org.
Originally published on July 21, 2022, this article was updated in May 2023.