The Truth About PFAS — and How to Avoid Them

While there is no shortage of toxic chemicals in the modern world, one particularly ubiquitous group is known as PFAS. Short for Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances, these synthetic compounds have been in use since the 1940s. They initially seemed like the

What are PFAS?

PFAS are a large family of manufactured chemicals created by joining carbon and fluorine. This strong bond makes many PFAS formulations that are resistant to degradation. PFOS and PFOA (perfluorooctanesulfonic acid) and PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid) were two of the most common formulas, used to make products waterproof and stain-resistant.

Most studies of PFAS’ health effects have focused on PFOS and PFOA — and the findings aren’t good. Exposure to these compounds has been linked to decreased fertility, birth defects, endocrine disruption, higher cholesterol, reduced immunity, and various cancers. PFOS and PFOA have been phased out due to these health concerns, but there are two problems:

  • PFOS and PFOA are lingering in our environment and our bodies, continuing to have health effects even if we no longer encounter these compounds.
  • Not enough research has been done on the many other PFAS formulas, so they may be harmful in ways we don’t yet know.
  • People’s exposure to PFAS changes during their lifetime, and communities have varying exposure depending on their proximity

In short, this is a massive public health crisis that’s also very difficult to track and research — let alone regulate. And unfortunately, PFAS are affordable for manufacturers who are eager to market innovative new products. But do PFAS’ benefits outweigh their risks?

Made to Last — Not in a Good Way

Many PFAS last for eight years, compared to the typical half-life of 2.5 to 3 years. It does not break down in the body; it accumulates over time. And it lasts even longer in the environment — potentially hundreds of years.

People who have been exposed to contaminated water for years are often above the recommended limits recently set in place. These not only carry through to our children but also produce epigenetic effects, in which damage to the mother’s body alters the environment for their fetus. This increases their likelihood of certain health conditions — an indirect effect of PFAS exposure.

Megacorporations DuPont and 3M made PFOA and PFOS, respectively, a key part of their flagship products. DuPont’s Teflon initially seemed like a revelation in cookware, solving the problem of burnt-on food. 3M released Scotchgard, which inspired a whole new industry of waterproofing and protective products. While the EPA eventually forced these companies to change their formulas, the damage was done. The CDC has found that the average American has been exposed to enough PFOA to leave up to 30 micrograms per liter in their blood. The EPA’s recommended “safe” level for lifetime PFOA exposure? A mere 0.07 micrograms per liter.

PFOA and PFOS are being phased out, but PFAS are still quite common in any product that needs to be resistant to moisture, heat, and staining. They also appear in agrochemicals such as pesticides (surprise, surprise). In general, you can expect on the

  • Stain-resistant or fade-proof materials, including many furniture items, household linens, baby clothes and blankets, etc.
  • Upholstery cleaners and fabric protectants/water repellants
  • Cosmetics and personal care products, including waxed dental floss and any makeup labeled as “waterproof”
  • Paint, especially powder-coats and any formulas that are high-gloss, stain-resistant, or “graffiti-proof”
  • Lubricants and waxes for various tools, equipment and devices (ski wax, bike chain grease, etc.)
  • Food packaging (inner seals for frozen and instant products e.g. microwave popcorn, waxy coatings on takeout containers, etc)
  • Varnishes and sealants
  • Non-stick cookware
  • Pesticides

The good news is that average PFOS and PFOA levels have declined significantly (80% and 60%, respectively) since 2002. Advanced water filtration is a major contributor to this improvement. However, other PFAS are still out there — and we don’t always know which waterways and soil systems are affected.

PFAS are Everywhere

In addition to direct exposure as we use common household items, cleansers, and cosmetics, we ingest PFAS indirectly through our food and water.

PFAS enter the soil at landfills and waste disposal sites, as well as areas that were contaminated by chemical spills or excessive pesticide use. They make their way into our groundwater and eventually our waterways, where they harm both flora and fauna. And because our drinking water is drawn from these rivers and springs as well, PFAS occurs in both municipal water supplies and private wells.

We also absorb PFAS from our food, whether from livestock that grazed on plants growing in PFAs-tainted soil, fish that were caught or raised in PFAS-contaminated waters, or even from food packaging that leaches into our food.

Because these chemicals are literally everywhere, most people in the United States have been exposed to them. The health effects vary widely depending on the level of exposure and which of the thousands of PFAS were encountered — but none of them are ideal.

Regulation Rather than Banning

Too many PFAS available, many of the actual ingredients are not disclosed as the formulas are protected under patents or considered confidential business information. The EPA has only set benchmarks and required limits rather than outlawing the production and use of PFAS. They advise consumers to request PFAS analysis from their municipal water utility or perform their own testing, then compare the results to state standards or the EPA’s health advisory levels. While it’s always good to be diligent, the fact remains that PFAS continue to be released into our environment.

To be fair, experts aren’t yet sure which PFAS are the most damaging. Factors such as their inherent toxicity, link to severe health effects, and ability to linger in the body and environment all impact their regulatory status. Given the sheer variety of PFAS, it’s likely not feasible to ban them outright. However, it would definitely be helpful if production was more closely monitored and products were labeled transparently.

Also, most household water filters are likely insufficient to remove PFAS. Those systems must be installed at the municipal level, which means consumers must put pressure on their governments to do the right thing. While the EPA has issued its advisories, those are virtually useless in practice. Their lack of oversight and failure to implement protective measures have allowed PFAS proliferation to continue.

What Can We Do?

Although the EPA may be toothless, they do have a good suggestion: reach out to your municipal utility and ask for their water analysis. Perform your own tests as well. (Just be sure to use a legitimate laboratory.) Compare the results to state standards. Hold them accountable.

In the meanwhile, do what you can to avoid PFAS exposure. While bottled water is also bad for the planet, you may wish to purchase sustainably sourced bottled water if your local water’s PFAS levels are exceptionally high. (Otherwise, you’ll have to invest in an elaborate home filtration system as shown on “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver”!) Avoid products labeled as waterproof, stain-resistant, fade-proof, and so on. Would you rather avoid stains on your kids’ blankets or make sure they grow up without development issues? Is greater ease in cleaning eggs really worth the potential risk of prostate or kidney cancer?

There’s often a better way that doesn’t require these products:

  • To quickly clean up spills on your upholstery or rugs, use club soda, then dab with either a mix of lemon juice and salt or a blend of white vinegar and baking soda.
  • No need for waterproof mascara or other makeup: Apply to a clean face, minimize products’ exposure to heat and light, and blot excess oil before applying.
  • Instead of nonstick cookware, use stainless steel or cast iron pans and preheat them before use. Clean your steel cookware (while it’s still warm) with a bit of dish soap. For burnt-on food, use a combination of baking soda and lemon juice. Cast-iron pans can be cleaned with a bit of warm oil and salt

Green living means giving up some modern conveniences in exchange for keeping both ourselves and our planet healthier. And often, there’s a better way to solve these household problems anyway. Isn’t our future worth a few extra minutes of scrubbing a pan?

This article is inspired by an interview with environmental activist Loreen Hackett, who created the PFOA Project after discovering widespread PFAS contamination among her community in Hoosick Falls, NY.

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