Perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, also known as PFAS, are a group of human-made chemicals that repel water, grease, and oil. Due to these properties, PFAS are capable of making practically any material resistant to water, oil, and stains- undoubtedly desirable qualities, not only to manufacturers but to consumers as well.
So, what’s the problem with PFAS? Well, there are three major ones. First of all, exposure to PFAS is known to result in a wide range of adverse health effects. Secondly, PFAS haven’t been nicknamed “forever chemicals” without good reason; they remain in both the environment and the human body for thousands of years, only accumulating over time. And lastly, PFAS are like literally everywhere.
Something In The Water
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) identified the presence of PFAS in the drinking water of approximately 16 million Americans during the testing of public water systems that took place over the course of three years., from 2013 to 2016. However, the scope of Americans exposed to drinking water contaminated by PFAS is believed to be far more widespread and disconcerting; While the EPA’s findings were never made public, The Environmental Working Group (EWG) theorizes the actual exposure rate to be somewhere around ten times the EPA’s purported findings, potentially affecting approximately 110 million unenlightened Americans.
These toxic chemicals are also commonly found in surface water (as in lakes and ponds), and let’s not forget groundwater that’s receiving run-off or seepage from areas where firefighting foam is used regularly, such as military bases and civilian airfields.
Inside and Out
PFAS aren’t just present in your water; they’re almost certainly running through your veins this very moment. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) concluded that PFAS are present in the bloodstreams of 98% of Americans.
And it’s not only Americans who have PFAS in their blood- the majority of people throughout the industrialized world have measurable amounts of PFAS in their bloodstream. In fact, it is highly unlikely that anyone, anywhere, has immeasurable levels of PFAS in their bloodstream.
Here, There, Everywhere
From the soil in which your food is grown to the equipment that’s used to process it, from the packaging to the very food item itself, PFAS are present. So, as it turns out, avoiding plastic isn’t exactly indicative of paranoia. Neither is a healthy skepticism toward carpets, textiles, rubbers, and electronics, as all of these products commonly contain PFAS. And the wide-breadth of PFAS long-reaching arm does not stop here.
Pizza boxes, take-out containers, non-stick cookware, stain and water repellent coatings, waterproof clothing, Scotch guard (manufactured before 2000), firefighting foam, dental floss, and many cosmetic products also all commonly contain these hazardous chemicals.
Unborn babies can be exposed to PFAS in utero, through PFAS-contaminated umbilical cord blood from their mothers. This exposure can ultimately result in low infant birth weight for the affected child.
Newborns who breastfeed can be exposed to PFAS through their mother’s breast milk. While this may make formula seem like a no-brainer, think again, as all formula products require water- water that is potentially contaminated with PFAS.
Toddlers are also found to be at a higher risk of PFAS exposure due to their tendency to crawl around on carpeting (known to contain PFAS) and on the floor (which was most likely cleaned with products containing PFAS). Young children exposed to high levels of PFAS are at an increased risk of developmental issues and delays.Perhaps even more disturbing, infants, children, and adolescents who experience more pronounced and increasingly negative effects than adults tend to experience when exposed to PFAS.
Studies in both humans and animals suggest that exposure to PFAS can lead to cancer, liver damage, immune system disruption, vaccine-resistance, thyroid disease, infertility, and high cholesterol.
One study concluded that PFAS are linked to six different diseases; kidney cancer, testicular cancer, thyroid disease, ulcerative colitis, high cholesterol, and pregnancy-induced hypertension. Additional studies show a wide range of possible health effects, including decreased sperm count and even reduced penis size.
Missing in Action
After 70 years of use, the US has only eliminated the use of two of the 5,000 or so different types of PFAS; PFOA and PFOS. Unfortunately, PFOA and PFOS can already be found throughout the environment, and worse, they aren’t going anywhere, anytime soon. Furthermore, PFOA and PFOS both continue to be utilized abroad and therefore continue to be present in many imported products.
In regards to the other 4,800 (or so) types of PFAS, the EPA has issued unenforceable health advisories yet has failed to establish any environmental regulation whatsoever. Equally upsetting, the FDA also has failed to pass any PFAS-related regulations (they have yet even to deem these chemicals as hazardous substances). So, in short, don’t bother checking the ingredient lists on your products for PFAS- they won’t be listed… but that certainly doesn’t mean they’re not there.
The outrageous lack of protections in place has recently lead to growing public concern over PFAS exposure and is motivating many states to take matters into their own hands by beginning to draft legislation which attempts to regulate PFAS usage.
The FDA’s website claims that it “established an internal working group this year to evaluate this issue and are working with state partners to establish more local testing laboratories.”
Avoiding the Plague
While, sadly, there is just no way to entirely avoid exposure to PFAS, but one can at least attempt to avoid the accumulation of high levels of PFAS in the body over time, by steering clear of certain products. Non-stick cookware, Gore-Tex fabric, Scotchguard (manufactured before 2000), and personal care products containing PTFE or any fluoro-ingredients should be avoided, when possible.
While it may seem counterintuitive, don’t boil your water, just don’t. Doing so only concentrates any PFAS present in your water (so not the goal). Use bottled water as opposed to tap water (although this does not eliminate your risk of PFAS exposure, as they are commonly present in plastics, as well as in the bottled water itself.
Wear rubber gloves while washing the dishes, especially if you have any rashes, cuts, or abrasions on your hands or arms. And keep an eye out for local fish advisories and consequently opt not to purchase or eat fish from potentially-contaminated-catches.
Also, ask your local health department if your water supply contains PFAS levels exceeding those specified levels by EPA health advisories. Or, better yet, check yourself, by inputting your zip code into the EWP’s Tap Water Database.