Nonstick cookware, grease-resistant food packaging, waterproof clothing—these products help make our daily lives less messy, but the convenience comes at a cost. We now know that chemicals lurking inside consumer goods like these can be toxic at extremely low parts per trillion levels, and pose significant risks to your health. The culprits are highly fluorinated chemicals called per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS for short, a broad category of manmade compounds that are nearly indestructible, earning them the name “forever chemicals.”
PFAS are practically impossible to avoid. Textiles are saturated with the chemicals to make them stain- and moisture-resistant. Sealant tape, ski wax, and floor wax use them as waterproofing agents; in machinery, they’re used to reduce gear friction. PFAS are found in our homes, our offices, our supermarkets—practically everywhere.
But prevalent though PFAS may be, experts say we should minimize our use of and exposure to these ubiquitous chemicals for three crucial reasons. “First, the structure of PFAS means they resist breakdown in the environment and in our bodies,” says Erik D. Olson, NRDC’s senior strategic director of health and food. “Second, PFAS move relatively quickly through the environment, making their contamination hard to contain. Third, for some PFAS, even extremely low levels of exposure can negatively impact our health.”
PFAS that enter the body through the water we drink, foods we eat, and products we use every day can linger there for years before they are eventually flushed out. “For years, bad-actor PFAS were used in food containers like pizza boxes, microwave popcorn bags, Chinese takeout containers, and other food packaging to repel grease, and they could leach into the food,” says Olson. “So NRDC and our partners petitioned the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to ban three of the worst PFAS from food uses. In January 2016, the FDA granted our petition and banned those three. But chemical cousins of those PFAS are still being used. And the trouble is, manufacturers don’t have to disclose to consumers that they’re using them."
These chemicals are not just all around us but actually inside us, too. PFAS were detected in the breast milk, umbilical cord blood, or bloodstreams of 98 percent of participants in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. The wide range of health woes associated with some PFAS in animal and human studies includes cancer (kidney and testicular), hormone malfunction, liver and thyroid problems, immune system dysfunction, reproductive harm, and abnormal fetal development.
Many of these problems turned up in the so-called C8 studies that monitored the health of about 69,000 people in West Virginia exposed to certain PFAS in their drinking water. These adverse effects were little known in the mid-20th century, when scientists first synthesized PFAS and manufacturers embraced them as wonder ingredients in countless consumer products. What they neglected to do at the time was to test them for safety in both adults and in children, whose developing bodies are more vulnerable to toxic chemicals.
Now that research has proved that some PFAS are dangerous, activists are beginning to win important victories in their battle to curb the use of these chemicals, including the 2002 phaseout of perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) and the 2015 phaseout of perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA or C8), which was used in the making of Teflon pans and identified as a possible carcinogen in humans by the International Agency for Research on Cancer.
Also crucial was the 2016 move cited above by Olson, the FDA's decision to ban three worrisome PFAS from food packaging. Other promising recent actions include decisions by states including New Hampshire and New Jersey to establish tap water standards for certain PFAS, and decisions by companies such as Home Depot and Lowe’s to remove PFAS from carpets and rugs.
Environmental advocates, including NRDC, continue to demand stricter regulations as well as more testing—and more transparency surrounding PFAS inclusion in consumer goods.
At the same time, DuPont is facing 3,500 lawsuits from people claiming they experienced adverse effects, including cases of kidney cancer, thyroid disease, and pregnancy-induced hypertension, when the company polluted Ohio and West Virginia waterways with the now-banned PFOA/C8. The lawsuits have already cost DuPont millions of dollars and may lead to more stringent policies and practices.
PFAS contain carbon-fluorine bonds that are among the strongest that exists, which makes them very durable in addition to being able to repel water, resist stains, and serve as commercial lubricants. (These properties also explain why they don’t readily break down in the human body or the environment.) Water systems in 43 states have been contaminated with PFAS, according to data collected by the Environmental Working Group and Northeastern University. PFAS have even shown up in the bloodstreams of polar bears in the Arctic. “PFAS are so resilient and so mobile in the environment that we are now finding them almost everywhere we look,” says NRDC staff scientist Anna Reade.
Since shorter-chain PFAS move more quickly through the human body than longer-chain ones (such as the three chemicals the FDA recently banned from food packaging), manufacturers are starting to use these as alternatives. That may sound like a positive step, but it isn’t actually a viable solution: “Companies will phase out a longer-chain PFAS,” Reade explains, “then replace it with a regrettable substitution—a chemical that’s slightly different but likely to trigger the same health problems as what it’s replacing.” Evidence shows this is already happening. According to reports by the EPA, two newer generation PFAS, GenX and PFBS, were shown to be linked to similar health effects as the PFAS they have replaced (PFOA and PFOS, respectively).
While the battle to curb PFAS continues, there are steps you can take now to safeguard yourself and your loved ones:
- Ask manufacturers whether their products contain PFAS, since they likely won’t be listed on labels. (Beware: Many products that say “PFOA Free” aren’t free of other types of PFAS.)
- Don’t use nonstick cookware, Gore-Tex clothing, personal care products with “PTFE” or “fluoro” ingredients, or textiles with stain-resistant treatments, like Scotchgard. In general, avoid buying items that are "waterproof," “water-resistant,” or “stain-resistant” unless absolutely necessary.
- Minimize PFAS exposure among children (who are especially susceptible to these chemicals' dangers) by avoiding carpets and upholstery that were treated to be stain or water resistant.
- Replace nonstick cookware with stainless steel, cast-iron, glass, or ceramic alternatives.
- Avoid ordering or heating up food that is wrapped in grease-resistant paper.
- Make popcorn on the stovetop instead of in PFAS-treated microwave bags.
- Ask your water provider if they have tested for PFAS. If they have, make sure to educate yourself on the results and your options for finding clean water if your water system is contaminated with PFAS. If they have not tested for PFAS, ask your water provider and state to start monitoring for PFAS.
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