They can stop eggs from sticking to the pan when you’re making breakfast. They can keep rain from soaking your jacket during a summer downpour. When you tip over a cup of tea on your nightstand, they can prevent the liquid from staining your bedroom carpet. Highly fluorinated chemicals, a broad category of manmade compounds used in countless consumer products, are helpful to product manufacturers in many ways. But scientists warn that PFASs are overused—and pose significant risks to your health.
PFASs, which stands for perfluoroalkyl substances and includes the category of chemicals known as PFCs, 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 are waterproof thanks to them, and in machinery they reduce gear friction. PFASs are found in our homes, our offices, our supermarkets—practically everywhere.
But prevalent though PFASs may be, experts say we should minimize our use of and exposure to these ubiquitous chemicals for two crucial reasons. “First, the structure of PFASs means they resist breakdown in the environment and in our bodies,” says Erik Olson, NRDC’s Health program director. “Second, for some PFASs, even minor levels of exposure can negatively impact our health.”
PFASs that enter the body through the foods we eat and products we use every day can linger there for years before they are eventually flushed out. “For years, bad-actor PFASs were used in food containers like pizza boxes, microwave popcorn bags, Chinese take-out 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 PFASs from food uses. In January 2016, the FDA granted our petition and banned those three. But we’re worried that chemical cousins of those PFASs are 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. PFASs 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 PFASs in animal studies includes cancer (kidney, prostate, rectal, testicular), hormone malfunction, liver and thyroid problems, and abnormal fetal development.
A study published in 2012 in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives found infants whose mothers were exposed to certain PFASs had lower-than-average birth weights. And women with high levels of some PFASs take longer than average to get pregnant, according a 2009 study in the journal Human Reproduction.
These adverse effects were little known in the mid-20th century, when scientists first synthesized PFASs 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 both in adults and in children, whose developing bodies are more vulnerable to toxic chemicals.
Now that research has proved that some PFASs are dangerous, activists have won 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 other worrisome PFASs from food packaging.
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.
PFASs are forged by carbon-fluorine bonds that are among the strongest in nature, which makes them tough enough to repel water, resist stains, and serve as commercial lubricants—and also explains why they don’t readily break down in the human body or the environment. Water systems in 27 states have been contaminated with PFASs, according to data collected by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. PFASs have even shown up in the bloodstreams of polar bears in the Arctic. “PFASs are so resilient that they’ll still be around millions of years from now,” says NRDC staff scientist Veena Singla.
Since shorter-chain PFASs 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, Singla says: “Companies will phase out a longer-chain PFAS, then replace it with a regrettable substitution—a chemical that’s slightly different but sometimes proves to trigger the same health problems as what it’s replacing.”
While the battle to curb PFASs continues, there are steps you can take now to safeguard yourself and your loved ones:
- Ask manufacturers whether their products contain PFASs, since they likely won’t be listed on labels.
- Don’t use nonstick cookware, Gore-Tex clothing, personal care products with “PTFE” or “fluoro” ingredients, or textiles made with the original (pre-2000) formulation of Scotchgard.
- If you don't need something truly "waterproof," look for coats, hats, boots, and tents labeled “water resistant.” They’re less likely to be treated with PFASs.
- 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.
- Watch for PFAS updates from NRDC and the National Toxicology Program.