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PFAS - Forever Chemicals

Nov 1, 2023, 15:26 PM by Michele Daniele, RND

What are PFAS or “forever chemicals”?
“Forever chemicals” is a nickname for a unique class of 15,000 different synthetic chemicals called  PFAS (pronounced pee-fas) meaning per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances. In the past, these chemicals were called PFCs. They give materials non-stick, greaseproof, and/or flame-retardant properties. PFAS can be found in a wide range of goods like non-stick cookware, greaseproof food packaging, cosmetics, personal care products,  carpets, rugs, outdoor gear, umbrellas, flame-retardant and waterproof clothing, stain resistant fabric, cleaning products,  building materials and firefighting foams. The long list makes them nearly impossible to avoid. 

Are PFAS harmful to our health?

While research to date links a wide range of health issues with PFAS, it’s difficult to know how much they contribute to chronic health conditions and at what quantities. PFAS have been linked to:

  • altered metabolism
  • infertility
  • reduced fetal growth
  • increased risk of being overweight or obese
  • a reduced ability of the immune system to fight infections
  • high cholesterol
  • liver, pancreatic and kidney disease
  • hormone and endocrine disorders
You can test to learn how much PFAS contamination there is inside your body, however there is little guidance on what to do with the results. 

How do PFAS get into our bodies?
Human exposure to PFAS is widespread. PFAS were detected in the breast milk, umbilical cord blood, or bloodstreams of 98 percent of participants in a National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

People can be exposed to PFAS a number of ways including:
  • food grown/raised in PFAS contaminated soil or water
  • consumer products
  • drinking water
  • their workplace/job
  • their community
  • from mother to unborn and newborn babies via umbilical cord blood and breast milk*
*Based on current science, the benefits of breastfeeding appear in most cases to outweigh the risks of exposure to PFAS for infants and provide many proven health benefits for infants, including protecting them from illness.

How do PFAS get into the environment?
PFAS are especially durable. When products containing PFAS are manufactured or thrown away, the PFAS do not degrade or break down. These chemicals can be found in the soil, water and air near manufacturing facilities that use PFAS such as aerospace, automotive, construction, and electronics industries. Higher levels of PFAS can also be found around airbases and airports, wastewater treatment plants and, landfills and in nearby drinking water sources. Once they seep into the soil or water, they are very difficult to remove.  Unfortunately, PFAS production is largely unregulated, and manufacturers often do not have to disclose to consumers when they use them. 

How can we gauge the amount of PFAS in our environment?
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reports that tap water accounts for 20% of a person’s total exposure to PFAS. A 2022 analysis report from the Waterkeeper Alliance found PFAS in 83% of sampled surface water taken from 34 states, 60% of sampled public groundwater wells, and in the bodies of animals in the food chain. CDC studies show that adult women have higher levels of PFAS contamination than men, mostly because women tend to use more personal care products and household cleaners which contain PFAS. 

Is there any federal or state regulation designed to ban or reduce the amounts of PFAS? 
In 2002, the EPA began the process of regulating some of the worst commercial offenders and mandated that manufacturers disclose using certain PFAS in their products. Some manufacturers have voluntarily phased out some PFAS, but they have also replaced the well-researched chemicals with other PFAS which have less-understood health impacts and are better able to bypass regulations. Currently, the federal government bans two of the nearly 15,000 PFAS from being manufactured or imported in the USA: PFOS and PFOA. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has not finalized any enforceable regulatory standards to protect people and water sources from PFAS. 

California has laws prohibiting the sale or distribution of PFAS-containing food packaging and children’s products, and the state requires disclosure of PFAS in cookware. California recently added to the list of products that must be PFAS-free within its borders, and passed two new laws banning the use of PFAS in certain textiles and cosmetic products. 

Restrictions contained in the newly passed AB 1817 and AB 2771 take effect on January 1, 2025, and they outlaw the manufacture, distribution and sale of any new, not previously used, textile and cosmetic products which contain PFAS.  

Are there ways to reduce my exposure to the most common PFAS?

  1. Use fewer canned goods, and more frozen, fresh, and dried ingredients. Skip plastic especially when storing or heating food. Don’t immediately trust a BPA-free or PFOA free symbol on a product; it could just mean that there are different PFAS present.
  2. Switch from non-stick cookware to cast iron, enamel, and stainless steel. If you cannot replace your pans, don’t preheat non-stick cookware and never use them in an oven or above 400 degrees. 
  3. Never use steel wool or other scraping cleaners on non-stick items; this can release the coating into your food or the environment.
  4. Filters containing activated carbon or reverse osmosis membranes have been shown to be effective at removing PFAS from water.
  5. Microwave popcorn bags, including organic brands, usually have PFAS coatings inside that can leach into your snack and are released into the air when you open the bag. Instead, buy loose popping corn and pop it on the stove or in a covered bowl or paper bag in the microwave.
  6. Avoid using stain resistant sprays, and look for cleaning products with less chemicals. 
  7. Consider polyester or plastic-based furniture fabrics that are already stain resistant or easy to clean, or choose darker colors. When cleaning fabrics, try vacuuming instead of dry cleaning. 
  8. Avoid products, including cosmetics, varnishes, and household items, that have PTFE or “perfluor” in the ingredient list. Try to avoid products and fabrics with a Scotch Guard or Gore Tex coating.
  9. Research which consumer goods are “PFAS-free” before you shop. You can find several PFAS free product databases here or here

by Michele Daniele, RDN, Sansum Clinic Nutrition Department

Registered Dietitian Michele Daniele >

Sansum Clinic Nutrition Department >