Explainer: Forever Chemicals (PFAS)
Everything you need to know about forever chemicals
July 07, 2022
What are forever chemicals?
In the 1940s, a group of chemicals called PFAS (per- or poly-fluoroalkyl substances if you’re nasty) were invented. Created in a lab, these miracle chemicals are resistant to heat, oil, and water - oh my! The possibilities were endless, and so the development of consumer and industrial products using PFAS exploded over the next 60 years from non-stick pans and water-proof clothing to food packaging and fire-fighting foam. It was a capitalist dream - what could go wrong?
What is the danger of a forever chemical?
Well, it turns out that when you make something that is incredibly resistant to breaking down, that might not be a good thing when that substance inevitably enters the environment or the human body.
PFAS are compounds made up of carbon-fluorine bonds that are extremely difficult to break apart. We’re talking hundreds or even thousands of years before these chemicals will break down, aptly earning them the nickname “forever chemicals".
Studies have linked specific PFAS to a variety of health effects including altered immune and thyroid function, liver disease, lipid and insulin dysregulation, and kidney disease. The CDC Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry has stated that PFAS contamination can affect the growth, learning, and behavior of infants and older children, could lower a woman’s chance of getting pregnant and could increase the risk of cancer. Yikes.
A moment on a non-stick pan, forever in your blood
Over 4700 PFAS exist, and because of this large number, the research connecting every type of PFAS to an adverse health effect is limited. Regardless, some PFAS have been found in the blood of occupationally exposed workers since the 1970s, and at present, the CDC has reported finding PFAS in a mere 97% of Americans. That’s not a typo.
PFAS in our drinking water
PFAS easily enter the environment because they are found in so many products (list of products with PFAS found here) - contaminating water, and bioaccumulating in plants and animals. Forever chemicals have been found virtually everywhere: in the deep ocean, in soil, in makeup, and on Mt. Everest. And, of course, in our drinking water.
A recent study estimates that over 200 million Americans have PFAS concentrations at or above 1 ng/L in their tap water, and somewhere between 18-80 million Americans have drinking water with concentrations of 10 ng/L or more.
For perspective, the EPA has established a lifetime drinking water health advisory level of 70 ng/L (a number that is debatedly not high enough to really be safe). For more perspective, the scientists in that study only analyzed two types of PFAS - PFOS and PFOA - because those are the groups that currently have the most available data. Testing is needed for the thousands of other PFAS used in everyday products that are potentially also in our drinking water.
If you weren’t familiar with the terms PFAS or forever chemicals before now, chances are you’ve heard of Teflon. Teflon was patented by Dupont and primarily manufactured by 3M. In 2001, citizens of Parkersburg, West Virginia launched a class-action lawsuit against Dupont for knowingly contaminating their drinking water with the cancer-causing chemical (...which they also knew caused cancer). This resulted in the US phasing out long-chain PFAS (meaning they have at least eight carbon atoms) including PFOA, PFOS, and Teflon. Could this be a happy ending?
Unfortunately, not quite. Short-chain PFAS (with only six carbon atoms) are still permitted in the US, despite evidence that they cause cancer in lab animals. The evidence is mounting and scientists are increasingly suggesting that the entire class of PFAS are toxic.
Despite the prevalence of PFAS in drinking water, this is not thought to be the main route of PFAS exposure for most Americans. Once again - PFAS. Are. Found. In. Everything. Do you like microwave popcorn? PFAS. Take-out food containers? PFAS. Personal care products like toothpaste and shampoo? There’s a PFAS for that too. These forever chemicals are discharged into the environment through the air and groundwater, but there are currently no restrictions on industrial PFAS under the federal Clean Water Act or Clean Air Act.
How to avoid forever chemicals
Despite being literally surrounded by forever chemicals, solutions do exist. You can personally reduce your family's exposure to PFAS by:
- Avoiding non-stick cookware, and making home-cooked meals instead of take-out (this has the added benefit of reducing plastic waste!)
- Checking for PFAS or PFC-free labels on textiles
- Avoiding personal care products and cosmetics that have ingredients with “fluoro” or PTFE in their name
You probably still want access to clean tap water though.
The EPA says that it is working to expand PFAS monitoring in drinking water and is accelerating scientific research related to PFAS. You can check if the drinking water near you has been contaminated here.
The House passed the PFAS Action Act in 2021, and the Keep Food Containers Safe from PFAS Act was passed as an amendment to the FDA Safety and Landmark Advancements Act of 2022. This will ban the use of PFAS in food packaging. At the state level, 21 states have laws targeting PFAS.
Until then, Shit-Givers can find clean products using the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep database or purchasing from companies with strong safety standards such as BeautyCounter. Search here for a list of other PFAS-free products and brands. You can learn more about BeautyCounter by listening to our podcast conversation with CEO Gregg Renfrew.
Fenton, Suzanne E., Alan Ducatman, Alan Boobis, Jamie C. DeWitt, Christopher Lau, Carla Ng, James S. Smith, and Stephen M. Roberts. "Perâ€ï¿½and polyfluoroalkyl substance toxicity and human health review: Current state of knowledge and strategies for informing future research." Environmental toxicology and chemistry 40, no. 3 (2021): 606-630.
“History and Use of Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS)”, Interstate Techonology Regulatory Council, https://pfas-1.itrcweb.org/fact_sheets_page/PFAS_Fact_Sheet_History_and_Use_April2020.pdf
Lewis, Ryan C., Lauren E. Johns, and John D. Meeker. "Serum biomarkers of exposure to perfluoroalkyl substances in relation to serum testosterone and measures of thyroid function among adults and adolescents from NHANES 2011–2012." International journal of environmental research and public health 12, no. 6 (2015): 6098-6114.
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