What Are Forever Chemicals and Should You Be Worried?
Health and Well Being
April 24, 2024
What Are Forever Chemicals and Should You Be Worried?

You've probably heard of "forever chemicals" before - perhaps in the news, on social media, or from a friend. But what exactly are they, and should you be worried?

Forever chemicals, or PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances), are human-made compounds used in various products and industries for their resistance to water and grease. While this property makes them useful for items like non-stick pans and rain jackets, there are growing concerns about their potential health and environmental impacts.

Understanding Forever Chemicals

In 1946, a company called DuPont started selling pans that food wouldn't stick to. They coated these pans with something called Teflon. Now, there are thousands of similar chemicals that came from Teflon. They're used to make things like pans that food won't stick to, fabrics that don't get stained easily, and items that don’t get wet easily. These chemicals are what we know as PFAS in modern day.

PFAS have unique properties that make them extremely persistent, allowing them to resist breaking down in the environment. Some PFAS can persist for thousands or even millions of years. This can be a great quality in a camping tent that is going to keep you warm and dry, but we’re beginning to learn that PFAS are also bioaccumulative, meaning they can build up in the bodies of humans and animals over time through exposure.

They have been detected in the blood of nearly all Americans and in a wide variety of wildlife, according to the Environmental Working Group. While all that lasting power may be good for your wallet — and having eggs that slide right off the pan to the plate — it may not be so good for you and your environment.

Sources of Exposure

As we mentioned, PFAS can be found in many common consumer and industrial goods.

Items such as:

  • Non-stick cookware (e.g. Teflon)
  • Waterproof and stain-resistant textiles (e.g. rain jackets, carpets, furniture)
  • Food packaging (e.g. microwave popcorn bags, wrappers for fast food, pizza box liners)
  • Personal care products (e.g. waterproof mascara, sunscreen)
  • Household products (e.g. stain and water repellents, cleaning products)
  • Firefighting foams
  • Paints, waxes, and other surface coatings

While you may not use these products, unfortunately, these chemicals can still make their way to you through the environment. PFAS can contaminate public water supplies and private wells, particularly in areas near facilities that produce or use PFAS. PFAS can also accumulate in plants, livestock, and fish that have been exposed to PFAS-contaminated water or soil.

Health Risks and Concerns

Our understanding of PFAS and its effects on health is still developing, and only a small number of the over 4,000 compounds have been studied for potential health impacts.

Scientists have linked various PFAS to a range of health problems, including higher cholesterol levels, digestive issues like ulcerative colitis, thyroid problems, weakened immune responses in children (including reduced effectiveness of vaccines), pregnancy-related conditions like hypertension and preeclampsia, lower birth weights, liver issues, and certain types of cancer such as kidney and testicular cancers.

Most people are exposed to PFAS through consuming contaminated food and water or inhaling contaminated air. The most severe health problems related to PFAS exposure have been seen in areas near factories and other facilities where these chemicals are used in high concentrations.

For most people, exposure to PFAS occurs through everyday products, food, and water. However, the risk of health effects associated with PFAS depends on:

  • Exposure factors (e.g., dose, frequency, route, and duration)
  • Individual factors (e.g., sensitivity and disease burden)
  • Other determinants of health (e.g., access to safe water and quality healthcare)

Something special to consider is children’s increased risk for exposure. Young children may be more likely to get PFAS in their bodies because they tend to chew on toys and fabrics and often put their hands into their mouths.

How to Reduce Exposure

Current regulations and guidelines governing PFAS use and contamination vary by country and region, but there is growing recognition of the need to address these chemicals due to their persistence in the environment and potential health risks.

In the United States, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has set a non-enforceable health advisory level of 70 parts per trillion (ppt) for two common PFAS compounds, perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS), in drinking water. However, there are no federal regulations specifically targeting PFAS in drinking water or other sources.

Several states have taken action to regulate PFAS more aggressively. For example, some states have set their own maximum contaminant levels for PFAS in drinking water, and others have enacted restrictions on the use of PFAS in consumer products or industrial processes.

However, the best action you can take to limit your exposure is to avoid or limit the use of common items that typically contain PFAS. This, in turn, can also help keep PFAS out of our water supplies, soil and air, as well.

  • Choose PFAS-Free Products: Look for products labeled as PFAS-free, including cookware, food packaging, carpets, and clothing. Opt for products made from natural materials or those labeled as using safer alternatives.
  • Filter Drinking Water: Invest in a water filter certified to remove PFAS from your drinking water. Look for one that’s NSF certified to filter out high levels of two types of PFAS (PFOA and PFOS), such as activated carbon filters or reverse osmosis systems.
  • Avoid Stain-Repellent Treatments: Be cautious with products labeled as stain-repellent or water-resistant, as they may contain PFAS. Consider alternatives or opt for untreated products when possible.
  • Read Labels: Check product labels for ingredients and avoid items that contain known PFAS compounds, such as perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) or perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS).
  • Limit Fast Food and Takeout: PFAS can be found in certain fast food wrappers and containers. Grease-proof paper packaging in the U.S. no longer contains PFAS, according to the FDA, but other disposable packaging may be a source of exposure. Reduce your exposure by cooking at home more often and using reusable containers for leftovers.
  • Consider silicone period products: If you’d like to reduce potential exposure to PFAS during menstruation, consider using medical-grade silicone insertables, such as menstrual cups or discs, instead. For details, read concerning PFAS exposure through menstrual and incontinence products.

While there is testing available to tell you how much of some PFAS are in your blood, it is unclear what the results mean in terms of possible health effects. Screening can aid in identifying your individual exposure to specific PFAS and assist in directing efforts towards exposure mitigation, while also offering some reassurance. However, it's important to acknowledge that all medical screenings entail both advantages and drawbacks. While a PFAS blood test can reveal exposure levels, it does not diagnose health issues or forecast future health conditions.

The Takeaway

While the presence of forever chemicals in our environment raises legitimate concerns, scientists don’t know with 100% certainty yet whether PFAS are safe, which is why some advocates say it is wise to limit PFAS exposure whenever possible.

If you are concerned about PFAS exposure through drinking water, determine whether your water has been tested by contacting your local water department. If you have a private well, you can contact local health or environmental agencies for guidance on how to get a private well tested. You may consider in-home water treatment filters that are certified to lower the levels of PFAS in water.

If you have questions or concerns about products used in your home, such as cleaning and personal care products, contact the Consumer Product Safety Commission at (800) 638-2772.

If you are concerned about PFAS exposure, you can talk with your healthcare provider. Your healthcare provider can help you consider the risks, benefits, and limitations of PFAS blood testing and help you determine the appropriate next steps based on your unique needs.

We use cookies and similar technologies to enhance your experience on our website and help us
understand how our site is used as described in our Privacy Statement and Terms of Use. By
using this website, you are agreeing to our Terms of Use.
Accept and Close