Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances, also known collectively as PFAS, are a collection of 9,000 man-made chemicals, all of which have equally confusing and unpronounceable names. This tongue-twister is not the problem. PFAS can be toxic and are everywhere.
They were found in the breast milk of 97.7% of Americans. Researchers believe that exposure to them may cause multiple health problems such as impaired fertility, immune system disruption, liver damage and other types of cancer.
Most PFAS are absorbed through water. However, there are many ways to reduce your exposure.
PFAS became well-known in the 1940s when they were used in nonstick cookware, stain resistant fabrics, and water-repellent clothing. You can find these chemicals in many types of grease-repelling packaging, waterproof cosmetics and carpets.
PFAS are dangerous not only because they are ubiquitous but also because it takes them more than a thousand year to dissolve in the environment. They can accumulate over time in the food chain, making their way into soil, water, and air. These substances are sometimes called "forever chemicals"
People who live near PFAS manufacturing, disposal, or use sites are at greatest risk. Other types of facilities are also dangerous: Data from the Department of Defense has shown that at least 12 US military bases have contaminated local water supplies with "extremely large levels" of PFAS during emergencies and exercises.
PFAS are not going away, but governments around the world have begun to ban or limit their use in certain areas. The USA is no exception. The Environmental Protection Agency declared 172 PFAS chemicals toxic in June 2020. The Food and Drug Administration is encouraging local manufacturers to accept a voluntary phase-out of certain PFAS in food packaging before January 2024. New York, California, Vermont and others have gone further. They will ban PFAS from food packaging beginning December 31, 2022.
Most PFAS contamination occurs in the water and food we eat. Your level of exposure will depend on where you live. The EPA recommends that you contact your local water company if you are consuming water from a public water system to find out what they are doing regarding PFAS and to request information about the nearest contaminated source.
But you may run into a problem. Rebecca Fuoco is the media officer at Green Science Policy Institute. She says that PFAS research hasn't received enough attention in the media. After reviewing 205 papers in the PFAS Tox Database, she found that 7.8 percent of authors had issued a press release. This got her some media attention.
This creates a general lack of awareness about forever chemicals. It also means that citizens who are concerned about PFAS will find academic papers full of scientific jargon they won't understand.
It's not about chemicals in your clothes getting on your skin from PFAS, but how they get into the environment.
Pay attention to the labels of any water- and weatherproof clothing you buy. Avoid materials such as Teflon or Gore-Tex, which often contain PFAS. You can find helpful lists online of PFAS-free outdoor gear, clothing, furniture, and cosmetics.
Susan Smith, a hydrogeologist with Dudek, an environmental consulting company based in California, says that "consumables" and "outdoor gear" are the most at risk for PFAS exposure. "I am currently going through my camping and hiking gear in search of PFAS-free items.
Water- and stain-resistant coatings may contain PFAS. It's therefore not surprising that nonstick cooking utensils might also have them.
PFOA is the main type of PFAS found in nonstick cookware. The EPA ruled that all manufacturers must disclose the use of the compound in 2013. Most of these companies replaced it with similar toxic GenX chemicals and declared their products PFOA-free. However, this is not the same thing as PFAS free.
Ceramic, steel or cast iron cookware is the best choice to avoid toxic chemicals and stubborn grease.
PFAS is likely to be found in waterproof mascaras, sweatproof foundations, and long-lasting liquid lipsticks. Researchers from different universities tested 231 makeup products in 2021 and found that more then half contained PFAS.
Julie Schneider, geochemist at ChemTrust, says that cosmetics must be clearly labeled. However, some ingredients can have complicated names, making it difficult to know what to avoid.
You can check every ingredient list to find out if your makeup contains toxic chemicals. A product name that contains "fluoro", is a red flag. The F in PFAS stands to fluorine. Therefore, any ingredient in the family could indicate the presence of PFAS. Schneider clarifies.
You can find help online if the ingredients list isn't complete on your cosmetics, or the packaging is too small for you to read the small words. Skin Deep is an online searchable database that allows you to find brands and products containing PFAS. Skin Deep was created by the Environmental Working Group, a Washington DC-based NGO. Skin Deep also offers suggestions for products that have been vetted and approved by the EWG. This means that if your lipstick turns out to be toxic, Skin Deep can help you find a safer alternative.
It is important to remember that scientists are still trying to determine what is safe and unsafe. Products using PFAS substitutes may still contain dangerous chemicals. This is why PFAS-free does not necessarily mean non-toxic or safe.
Some food packaging can be protected from PFAS's repellent properties by waterproof fabrics. This will help to prevent your take-out food from getting greasy. Your health is paramount, so make sure you use the bead test to ensure your food does not contain PFAS.
You can apply olive oil to any cardboard, paper-based, or molded fiber packaging. This includes pizza boxes, paper bags, takeout containers, and paper bags. Schneider explained that olive oil's polarity differs from that of fluorinated molecules found in PFAS. Therefore, if the oil forms a perfect bead and the material is unable to absorb it, then there may be a PFAS layer preventing it.
She says, "If it spreads little, then it's another coat--it is not PFAS."
Although the bead test is not practical in grocery stores, you can still use it at home to check food containers and packaging so that you don't have to.
Susan Smith, a hydrogeologist at Dudek, says that water companies must test water samples for PFAS in order to declare water safe for human consumption. The Safe Drinking Water Act requires that pollutants test below certain limits, but this doesn't necessarily mean that water is PFAS-free.
She says, "An analogy could be drawn to the FDA allowing certain quantities of insect parts into foods." "Chemicals including PFAS are similar."
You can reduce your exposure further by using a certified filtering device, pitcher or portable filter to filter your water.
Smith says that reverse osmosis filters (RO) are the most efficient. They're usually installed under your kitchen sink.
The EPA offers some helpful tips and guidance to help you choose the right water filter for you. However, you should ensure that your system is maintained according to manufacturer specifications.
Although fighting PFAS may seem like a lot of work, it is possible to eliminate them completely. But it's well worth the effort. We can all take steps to eliminate toxic chemicals from our daily lives so that our families are healthier and happier for longer.