Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, also known as PFAS, are a group of 9,000 different man-made chemicals, all with equally unpronounceable and complicated names. But navigating this tongue twister is the least of our worries: PFAS are toxic and they are everywhere.
Biochemists have found them in the bodies of 97% of Americans, as well as in breast milk, and researchers believe exposure to these compounds may be associated with multiple health issues, such as immune system disruption. , developmental problems, impaired fertility, liver damage, and various types of cancer.
Most PFAS that enter our bodies do so through drinking water, but since there is no single source of exposure, you can always limit some of these chemicals in your daily life.
No, but seriously, what exactly are PFAS?
PFAS became famous in the 1940s, when manufacturers began using them in products such as nonstick cookware, stain-resistant fabrics, and water-repellent clothing. These days, you can also find these chemicals in some types of water-repellent food packaging, waterproof cosmetics, carpets, furniture, and take-out containers.
Besides being ubiquitous, PFAS are particularly dangerous because they take more than a thousand years to break down in the environment. This allows them to build up the food chain over time, making their way into the soil, air, and water that we and other animals consume. This is why these substances are also known as “eternal chemicals”.
[Related: Earthworms can break down bioplastic, for better or for worse]
Communities living close to where PFAS are used, manufactured or disposed of are most at risk of exposure. But other types of facilities can also be dangerous: recent Department of Defense data shows that at least 12 US military bases contaminated local water supplies with ‘extremely high levels’ of PFAS during exercises and emergencies.
Yet, while forever chemicals might be here to stay for a while, governments around the world have begun to limit or outright ban the use of PFAS in certain areas. The United States is no different. As of June 2020, the Environmental Protection Agency has labeled 172 PFAS chemicals as toxic, and the Food and Drug Administration is currently encouraging local manufacturers to accept a “voluntary elimination” of certain PFAS in food packaging by January 2024. Some States including New York, California and Vermont have gone further and will begin to completely ban PFAS in food packaging as of December 31, 2022.
Do your own research
Most PFAS contamination occurs through the water and food we eat, so your level of exposure will depend heavily on where you live. If you get your water from a public system, the EPA recommends that you contact your local water company to find out what they are doing about PFAS and request information on the nearest contaminated source.
But you may encounter a problem. PFAS research has not received enough media attention, says Rebecca Fuoco, media officer at the Green Science Policy Institute. She reviewed more than 205 articles from the PFAS-Tox database and found that only 7.8% of authors had issued a press release and received media attention.
This not only perpetuates a lack of general chemical awareness forever, but it also means that when trying to educate themselves, citizens concerned about PFAS will mostly find academic papers filled with scientific jargon that they probably cannot. not understand.
Sort your water and stain resistant gear
When it comes to your clothes, it’s not PFAS that gets into your skin when you wear them, but rather chemicals that end up in the environment when you wash them.
Check the labels on any waterproof or waterproof clothing you buy and avoid materials like Gore-Tex or Teflon, which typically contain PFAS. If you search online, you’ll find handy lists of PFAS-free products, including outdoor gear, clothing, furniture, and cosmetics.
“Consumables and outdoor gear are probably my biggest risk for PFAS exposure,” says Susan Smith, a hydrogeologist at Dudek, a California-based environmental consulting firm. “I’m currently sorting out my hiking and camping gear to replace it with PFAS-free gear.”
Avoid non-stick pans
Water- and stain-resistant coatings can contain PFAS, so it’s no surprise that nonstick cookware also contains it.
The main type of PFAS in nonstick cookware is PFOA. In 2013, the EPA ordered all manufacturers to disclose their use of the compound, leading most to replace it with equally toxic GenX chemicals and label their products as PFOA-free. But it is not the same as without PFAS.
In 2020, the Ecology Center, a Michigan-based NGO, tested 24 different pieces of PFOA-free nonstick cookware from different brands and found that 20% of bakeware and 79% of bakeware were coated. of PTFE, another type. of the PFAS.
To avoid both toxic chemicals and the chafing of stubborn grease, opt for ceramic, steel or cast iron cookware.
“In cosmetics, by law, all ingredients must be labelled, but they can have very complicated names that make it difficult to determine what to avoid,” says Julie Schneider, geochemist at environmental NGO ChemTrust.
The best way to tell if you’re carrying toxic chemicals in your makeup bag is to check each product’s ingredient list. Any entry with “fluoro” in its name is a red flag: The F in PFAS stands for fluorine, so any ingredient in the family can indicate the presence of PFAS, Schneider says.
If the full list of ingredients is not on your cosmetics or the packaging is too small to read the small words, you can get help on the internet. The Environmental Working Group, a Washington DC-based NGO, created Skin Deep, an easily searchable online database of brands and products containing PFAS. The site also offers EWG-approved products, so if you find your favorite lipstick is actually toxic, Skin Deep will provide you with a healthier alternative.
It is important to understand that science is still determining what is safe and what is not, so products using PFAS substitutes may still contain problematic chemicals. That’s why PFAS-free doesn’t necessarily mean safe or non-toxic.
Try the marble test
The same repellent powers that PFAS provide to waterproof fabrics help some food wraps keep your delicious takeout meals from becoming a greasy mess. But your health is more important, so you need to keep your food as far away from PFAS as possible using the bead test.
Put a drop of olive oil on the surface of any paper, molded fiber, or cardboard packaging, such as pizza boxes, paper bags, and compostable take-out containers. The polarity of olive oil is opposite to that of the fluorinated molecules in PFAS, Schneider explains, so if the fat forms a perfect bead that the material can’t absorb, there could be a PFAS coating on it. stop.
“If it spreads a bit, then it’s another coating, it’s not PFAS,” she says.
Bead testing may not be practical at the grocery store, but you can use this method to test food containers and wrappers at home so you can avoid them in the future.
“An analogy can be drawn to how the FDA allows certain amounts of insect parts in food,” she says. “Chemicals, including PFAS, are similar.”
To be on the safe side, you can further reduce exposure by filtering your drinking water with a portable filter, pitcher, or certified filtering device connected directly to your faucet.
[Related: Here’s how a faucet filter reduces contaminants in your tap water]
According to Smith, reverse osmosis (RO) filters are some of the most effective: They’re typically installed under your kitchen sink and force water through small, semi-permeable membranes to remove contaminants.
If you need guidance, the EPA has some nifty tips for more on certified home water filters and what features to look for when choosing one. But whatever system you get, make sure it continues to perform at its best by using and maintaining it according to the manufacturer’s specifications.
Fighting PFAS seems like a lot of work and getting rid of them completely is still probably impossible, but it’s definitely worth it. Every step we take to eliminate toxic chemicals from our daily lives helps us and our families stay healthier and happier, longer.