PFAS, the “Forever Chemicals”: What you Need to Know

PFAS chemicals can be harmful to you and the environment and can be difficult to avoid. Continue reading this blog to learn about the best ways to avoid them and how these forever chemicals can harm you.

In recent years, we have started to learn that “forever chemicals,” or PFAS, can be a threat to people and the environment. 

A new report published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology Letters, urges lawmakers, companies, and society to manage PFAS chemicals as a class. This is opposed to researching and banning one PFAS at a time. 

So what are PFAS chemicals? What do they mean for the environment and public health? And why is it important they are treated as a group? 

What are PFAS?

PFAS are “per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances.” These chemicals are also known as forever chemicals because they are very slow to break down. In other words, PFAS stay in the environment and our bodies.

There are many kinds of PFAS chemicals. The molecules can be small or large, acidic or basic, liquid or solid. 

Because of this diversity, they have many uses.

Where are PFAS found?

PFAS are mainly used to make something non-stick or smooth (low-friction).

Consumer goods that can contain or are coated with PFAS include:

  • Carpets

  • Glass

  • Paper

  • Clothes

  • Cookware

  • Food packaging

  • Electronics

  • Personal care products

PFAS have also found industrial use in:

  • Lubricants

  • Coatings

  • Firefighting foams

  • Pesticides

  • Medical procedures/products

Water, Soil, and Your Body

PFAS can also be found in places they weren’t intended to go. They are released into the environment during:

  • Chemical production

  • Product manufacturing, distribution, or use

  • Disposal

  • Recycling

  • Fire-fighting foam use

Because of their high use and persistence, they are found in soils, waters (including drinking water), animals, and people.

PFAS also enter our bodies through food, water, air, and household dust. In fact, one group of PFAS, called PFAAs, can be detected in almost every single person in the US and Europe. 

Are all PFAS harmful?

Many PFAS have not been studied, but that does not mean they are not harmful. The more we study PFAS, the more we learn about how dangerous they can be.

In fact, many “safer” PFAS alternatives have been shown to be just as (or even more) harmful than the chemicals they replaced. Even producing some of the so-called safer alternatives uses the PFAS chemicals which are harmful.

How do PFAS Harm Health?

Elevated levels of PFAS in humans are associated with:

  • Cancer

  • High cholesterol

  • Liver disease

  • Low fertility

  • Hormone problems

PFAAs are shown to be toxic to the immune system. Like some other everyday toxic chemicals, they can reduce your immune response

Why should all PFAS be managed as a class?

There is no doubt that the use of PFAS needs to be changed, and fast. They are so persistent that removing PFAS from the environment is expensive and challenging.

The report calls for all PFAS to be managed together, and banned from use where possible. The authors argue that regulating one chemical at a time causes delays. These delays harm human health and the environment.

More benefits of class-based management include:

  • Avoiding toxic substitutes. Banned chemicals are often replaced by similar, and equally toxic, alternatives. Banning PFAS as a whole will lessen this practice.

  • Implementation is easier. Class-based policies often result in better compliance and more environmental testing.

  • Incentivizing safer alternatives. By avoiding “regrettable substitutions,” companies looking to replace PFAS are motivated to discover entirely new alternatives.

How can I avoid PFAS?

Because PFAS are so persistent in the environment, it can be difficult to avoid exposure from food, water, and air. 

Here are some ways to reduce PFAS exposure:

  • Filter drinking water. Research shows that reverse-osmosis and two-stage filters are best. 

  • Avoid fast and prepackaged food. PFAS are used to coat paper food packaging, including pizza boxes, paper cartons, carry out bags, and popcorn bags. PFAS-treated wrappers are extremely common.

  • Avoid personal care products that contain “fluoro” or “PTFE.” PFAS can be found in: mascara, creams and lotions, foundation, scrubs, peels, and more. 

  • Avoid “stain resistant” or “water repellent” clothing and textiles. Avoid carpets and furniture with the same labels

  • Dust and vacuum often. Frequent dusting and vacuuming your home can remove dust that contains PFAS

  • Support brands and products that do not use PFAS

  • Support legislation to ban PFAS

The environmental persistence of PFAS means that individual actions cannot cut out all PFAS exposures. Therefore, the best outcome is to ban the class entirely. 

To learn about other toxic chemicals and how you might be exposed, check out Million Marker’s other blog posts.