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What are PFAS chemicals?

Updated: Mar 17, 2023




You might have seen “PFAS” popping up in the news over the past few years. Articles are highlighting the group of chemicals known as PFAS as more studies are being done and coming out on the environmental and human health impact they have. But, what are PFAS? It’s complex so I’m covering the who, what, and why of them and what we can do about them.


What are they?

PFAS aka "Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances" are man-made chemicals that were created in the 1940s by 3M who sold it to DuPont as they were creating non-stick teflon pans. They are called "Forever chemicals" because they don't break down in the environment, a characteristic that has proven to be very problematic for us. They are known for their inherent non-stick, waterproof, and stainproof properties and are widely used in consumer, commercial, and industrial products. From firefighting foam to waterproof mascara, these little buggers are everywhere.


Because they have been used in so many products for decades, we are now seeing how pervasive these chemicals are and how easily they travel. PFAS have been found in our soil, water, rain and in blood tests on humans and animals. It’s estimated 95% of humans have PFAS present in their blood. They are literally everywhere and have even been found in isolated undeveloped areas of the world like the arctic and Antarctica. Wildlife aren’t immune and in England and Wales, of 50 otters sampled, all 50 had PFAS present with 12 different types of PFAS found in 80% of the animals.


There are thousands, at least 8,000, of different types of PFAS but only a few have been well-studied and tested. The best-known PFAS are “PFOS” and “PFOA” and these two are the only ones subject to regulation in many countries. While these two groups of PFAS were banned from consumer products in the USA early in the 2000s, replacements like “GenX”, "C6", and "C4" have been studied to be just as harmful.


One of the most well-known examples of the health effects of PFAS is the case of DuPont dumping its chemicals into the waterways in West Virginia. There is an excellent documentary The Devil We Know and a dramatized version called Dark Waters which both follow the same story. Workers at DuPont started developing serious health issues from working closely with PFOA's. At the same time DuPont was dumping PFOAs into waterways. Farmers started seeing their cattle developing strange health issues and dying. Local residents were giving birth to children with birth defects. Dozens of DuPont employees developed and died of cancer. Shockingly, DuPont knowingly dumped PFOA into local waterways from 1951-2003. They have since have had to pay out hundreds of millions to West Virigina and other states they knowingly contaminated.


While there is known harm as we see from DuPont, there is also a lot of unknown harm we are starting to uncover from PFAS. This highlights a bigger problem we have here in the United States.


The United States operates on a safe until proven otherwise process when new products are coming into the marketplace. While other countries make companies prove a product is safe before selling it, the US does not require safety data or tests. Additionally, of the 40,000+ chemicals in use in the marketplace, less than 10% of them have been tested for safety. This doesn't mean these chemicals are harmful it just means we simply don't know. So once again, it's falling on consumers to protect themselves from companies using harmful products because the government is failing to protect us.


At this point with PFAS being in practically everything, it's not a matter of avoiding PFAS but limiting our exposure to them. Call me an optimist, but I am hopeful in seeing that reform and regulations are on the way to help get PFAS out of our products. Companies are starting to commit to phasing them out. But, it will take time and for now, I want you to better understand PFAS and how to minimize your exposure.


What exactly are PFAS used in?

  • Waterproof and stain-resistant clothing and shoes

  • Stain-resistant furniture and carpets

  • Non-stick cookware

  • Electronics, Cell phones, Apple Watch Sports model

  • Food packaging

  • Cleaning products

  • Makeup

  • Floss

  • Feminine care products

  • Firefighting foams

  • Many industrial processes

  • Surgical gowns

  • Low emission vehicles

  • Paints, varnishes, and sealants

An important side note is while PFAS are not intentionally put into other products, they are showing up in a huge range of products at concerning levels. From butter wrappers, floss, and compostable plates, to peanut butter and feminine care products. Many times it's where the products are manufactured, the machines where they are produced, or filler ingredients in a product that can be the cause of the PFAS.


What are their health effects?

Some chemicals like BPA leave your body in a few days. PFAS, due to their indestructible nature, bioaccumulate. This means they build up in your body and it's extremely hard for your body to get rid of them. This makes us trying to avoid them really important.


Many studies have been done in animals and humans and exposure to PFAS has been associated with:

  • Kidney and testicular cancer

  • High cholesterol

  • Abnormal thyroid hormone levels

  • Pregnancy-induced hypertension and preeclampsia

  • Miscarriage

  • Obesity

  • Low birth weight

  • Children’s cognitive and neurobehavioral development

  • Parkinson's

  • Autoimmunity

  • Respiratory Diseases

These are very serious health effects indeed. While the correlation is very clear in certain areas where the chemicals are heavily used, it is tricky to give advice otherwise on what are safe levels to be exposed to. For example, in Flanders, the government has advised people living in the neighborhood of a 3M PFAS factory to stop eating eggs and vegetables from their hens and gardens. We are seeing similar guidance being offered for people living near military bases, with strong recommendations for residents to filter their water.


Even though the government has known these chemicals are toxic for a long time, they just recently started taking them seriously so there aren’t any great guidelines in place for how much is “safe” to be exposed to. One study showed that one scratch on a non-stick pan can release 9,000 PFAS particles. So my rule of thumb is to avoid them as best as possible.


Companies can test for the chemical Flourine which is in PFAS to know if PFAS are present in certain products. As I mentioned above, companies may not test for them if they aren't purposely using them but they can make their way into products anyway. Companies don't have set standards for levels of PFAS they consider harmful which makes it trickier. Mamavation who tests products for looks for levels less than 10 parts per million. California which recently banned paper food packaging must have less than 100 parts per million organic fluorine. Denmark has 20 ppm as their threshold. So, thresholds vary, making it all the more confusing.


How are we mainly exposed?

Water is the predominant way we are exposed. Filtering your drinking water is the single most important thing you can do to lower your exposure to PFAS as there are currently no state or federal regulations to filter water for PFAS.


Food is another big way we are exposed. Studies have shown that people who don’t eat fast food often have much lower levels of PFAS than those who do, due to exposure to PFAS in the food packaging. Eating animal products is another common source of PFAS and it's frankly hard to know what’s safe to eat. Even if you are choosing grass-fed organic meat, I don’t know how we know if the soil has been contaminated with a concerning amount of PFAS. This is something I want to look into further.


Lastly, as I’ve mentioned PFAS are skilled at migrating and they are commonly found in dust and air. Focusing on creating great indoor air quality is an effective way to get them out of your home. I will give more detailed tips on all of these points later on.


How do we limit exposure?

Now onto the part we all want to know, how do we avoid PFAS?


Water

  • The first order of business is to get a water filter for your home. There are many different options from whole-home water filters and reverse osmosis systems, to countertop filters. This post features brands that specifically filter PFAS, along with other unwanted chemicals.

  • It’s especially important to filter water if you live near military bases or industrial factories.

  • While a whole-house water filter is the best option, it’s price prohibitive. If you just have a drinking water filter, consider getting a shower and bath filter too.


Food

  • Limit freshwater fish. Check for fish advisories in your state using this link.

  • Limit fast food (wrappers contain PFAS). Foods that contain a lot of greases like burgers and fries are prime candidates as well as pizza boxes and candy wrappers. If you do buy fast food, take them out of the wrappers as quickly as possible.

  • Do not use non-stick cooking pans, bakeware, or small appliances

  • Don’t pop popcorn in popcorn bags

  • Don’t reheat food in take-out containers or plastic

CLOTHING

  • Avoid water and stain-proof clothing, furniture, carpets, and outdoor gear. Avoid products with “Gore-Tex” or “Teflon” tags

HOME

  • Limit dust in your home

  • Vaccum and mop frequently

  • Open windows

  • Use HEPA air purifiers

  • Change HVAC filters consistently

  • Avoid stain-resistant fabrics, furniture & carpets, and stain-resistant sprays for furniture and avoid the ingredient "C6" which is supposed to be a better replacement for PFAS but itsn't

MAKEUP


For more specific brand recommendations, this website has a comprehensive list of PFAS-free brands https://pfascentral.org/pfas-free-products/ Additionally, my Healthy at Home eBook has products from every category mentioned that are PFAS-free.


What else can be done?

It’s complicated and requires a multipronged approach. As Lindsay Dahl, a toxins expert, summarized, “We need a policy solution, a business solution, an innovative solution, and an analytical solution (testing). On the policy front, we need a federal ban that will entirely remove these global pollutants from being used in the first place. On the business side, we need to call on companies to do better, they need to innovate to find new and safer solutions and ask hard questions about their supply chains. We need green chemists to be creating different solutions for a very useful but also very toxic class of chemicals. And we need the scientific community to to establish clear testing methodologies that help us address PFAS hiding in supply chains.”


Whew, deep breaths. A lot needs to change. This isn’t going to happen overnight but some progress is being made. Thankfully the Environmental Protection Agency has just proposed (March 2023) its first limits on PFAS in public drinking water systems nationwide. They have proposed regulating six types of PFAS chemicals. If the restrictions are implemented, water systems will be required to monitor and treat their water, and inform the public if PFAS levels exceed the EPA’s limits. Unfortunately, we are still a few years away from this even being implemented. EPA will hold a public comment period, and finalize the rule by the end of 2023. Once the rule is finalized, water systems will have three years to comply.


Some states are taking matters into their own hands. Connecticut, Maine, Minnesota, New York, Vermont, Washington, and California have all restricted PFAS in food packaging as of January 2023. Maine has passed a law that will limit the nonessential use of the chemicals, and several other states have taken similar steps. California also has banned the use of PFAS in children’s items such as booster seats, changing pads, infant carriers, nursing pillows, and crib mattresses. These types of laws will hopefully start precedents other states follow.


Putting pressure on companies to phase out PFAS has been effective. Researchers like Mamavation and Consumer Reports are testing brands from feminine care products to cooking oils to help expose which companies are testing high in PFAS. In response, public brands are starting to say they will stop using PFAS. Patagonia has said it will stop using PFAS by 2024. Restaurants including Chipotle, Sweetgreen, Wendy’s,. Burger King, Nathan’s Famous, and Chick-fil-A publicly announced plans to get PFAS out of food wrappers as well. Other big companies like New Balance, La Coste, Seventh Generation, and Naturepedic have also committed to never using PFAS.


If you aren’t sure if a brand is using PFAS, reach out to them!


Bottom line, the burden should not fall on individuals to have to protect themselves from these chemicals but that is where we are currently.


I hope this has been illuminating and helpful for you so you can confidently avoid PFAS!


Sources:


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