Ever heard of PFAS chemicals? They may sound like a complex acronym, but what's more complex is the potential threat they pose to our health. In this article, we explain where these sneaky chemical compounds are found, how to identify them, and how to reduce their impact on our health.
What are PFAS chemicals?
PFAS chemicals (polyfluoroalkyl substances), with origins dating back to 1886 and initially used for making weapons, have emerged as a contemporary health concern. Their remarkable durability, once an asset in withstanding rigorous processes, now poses potential risks due to their slow degradation over time.
Although they are generally used in industrial settings such as the aerospace or construction industry, they are also commonly found in consumer goods in households such as non-stick cookware and packaging items.
How could these chemicals affect me?
Given the widespread use of PFAS chemicals, estimates suggest that 100% of Americans are exposed to at least one PFAS. Research has shown that prolonged exposure to PFAS chemicals can be toxic. PFAS chemical exposure may result in:
- Immune system impairment. Various infections due to altered immune response.
- Reproductive toxicity. Gestational hypertension and preeclampsia (high blood pressure during and post-pregnancy).
- Developmental toxicity. Slowed growth in fetuses and children.
- Cancers. Increased risk of kidney cancer, breast cancer, and testicular cancer.
- Organ toxicity. Diseases such as ulcerative colitis and liver enzymes alterations.
- Dyslipidemia. Changes in the blood levels of lipids (cholesterol).
Which household products may contain PFAS?
PFAS chemicals are often hiding in plain sight. Some common household items that may contain PFAS chemicals include:
- Cookware. Non-stick cookware, bakeware. Instead of non-stick cookware, consider using good quality steel cookware or cast iron pots.
- Food packaging. Burger wrappers, candy wrappers, fast-food wrappers. When possible, use safer options such as a reusable sandwich bag or a steel bento box.
- Clothing. Water-resistant fabrics for tents, umbrellas, gloves, and jackets. Research for brands that offer PFAS-free alternatives.
- Cosmetics. Sunscreen, foundation creams, lip balms. There are apps you can try that can help identify PFAS-free products.
- Electronic products. Cameras, cell phones, lithium batteries. Take special care while recycling or disposing these electronics.
- Medical supplies. Lenses, wound care, and oral capsules. Ask your healthcare provider for safer alternatives.
- Cleaning supplies. Dishwashing liquid, detergents. Some brands offer safer alternatives, or you can search for a suitable option for you online.
You can visit online marketplaces (or local malls) to find safe alternatives to household products that contain PFAS.
Additionally, people can get exposed to PFAS chemicals at work i.e. occupational exposure. For instance, firefighters are commonly exposed to fire-fighting foam; farmers are exposed to fertilizers and pesticides. However, a bigger concern is that PFAS can be found in food and water.
Foods to avoid for high PFAS levels
Foods can get easily contaminated with PFAS chemicals. Options that are commonly detected with high PFAS may include fish and seafood, for example, salmon, trout, and similar found in contaminated water. In addition, hamburgers, luncheon meats, sausages, bacon, butter, and microwave popcorn are also considered high-PFAS foods.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) usually provides information about affected waterways. Meanwhile, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) provides guidelines to avoid food contamination with PFAS chemicals. You can check their website if any concerns arise.
What can I do to prevent exposure?
Here are some tips to prevent exposure to these chemicals:
- Cleaning. PFAS chemicals accumulate on surfaces such as carpets and rugs. Frequent cleaning (vacuuming) and regular washing help in reducing exposure to PFAS chemicals.
- PFAS-free products. Before buying any product, ask the seller or research online if the product has PFAS chemicals. Purchase PFAS-free products when possible.
- Awareness about labels. Certain labels such as stain-resistant or water-resistant indicate that the product includes PFAS chemicals. Make sure to analyze product labels and avoid such purchases when possible.
- Footwear. PFAS chemicals can enter homes on our shoes. Remove footwear by the door to reduce PFAS chemicals inside homes.
- Reheating food. Instead of grease-resistant packaging, use PFAS-free bowls or plates to reheat takeaway food.
- Home water filters. Filtering drinking water reduces the amount of PFAS ingestion.
Removing PFAS from your drinking water
PFAS chemicals can be found in your drinking water. The most common culprit is the firefighting foam that gets mixed with surface water. Apart from that, industrial waste, leaching from landfills, cosmetics that are washed off, or electronic products that are not disposed of correctly have the potential to contaminate drinking water.
Reducing PFAS chemical levels in drinking water is possible with home filtration systems. It's important to note that boiling water doesn't eliminate PFAS. While public utilities may install city-wide filtration systems, budget constraints can be limiting. Individuals can opt for smaller home filters, and NSF International offers a database of filters effective in removing PFAS. In situations where filters are not accessible, consider alternative water sources such as bottled water.
Testing and removing PFAS from your body
PFAS in the body can be detected by blood testing, like serum or plasma concentrations. Usually, PFAS exposure less than 2 nanograms per milliliter (ng/mL) does not have immediate adverse effects. An increased risk of adverse effects is observed above 20 ng/mL. These effects include risk of obesity, reduced immune responses, various cancers, and developmental defects.
Depending on the source of exposure, clinicians recommend methods to potentially reduce PFAS levels through dietary and lifestyle changes. For instance, people who are exposed to PFAS chemicals due to their occupations are recommended reduced exposure and periodic testing. This also includes previously mentioned avoidance of processed foods and using PFAS-free personal care products.
The elimination half-life of PFAS chemicals from the human body can take a few hours to a decade. Given the long duration that these chemicals can stay in the body, prevention is the best cure. Talk to your healthcare provider if you notice changes in weight, blood pressure, changes in thyroid function or liver function. Also, consult your doctor before symptoms appear if you suspect increased PFAS exposure.
In a nutshell, almost all Americans have had exposure to one of the PFAS chemicals. These chemicals are found in common household items such as cosmetics, cookware, clothing, and medicines. Since PFAS exposure is associated with increased risk for various diseases, it's essential to focus on reducing PFAS exposure.
Why are products made with PFAS?
PFAS chemicals are water-resistant, which makes them suitable for various consumer products such as take-out containers, non-stick cookware, cleaning supplies, and waterproof clothing.
How long does it take to eliminate PFAS from our bodies?
As environmental exposure declines, the level of PFAS chemicals declines. However, currently, the exact length of time for the elimination of PFAS is unknown.
Are PFAS harmful to our health?
Yes, prolonged exposure to PFAS chemicals can have a harmful impact on our health. Decreased immune function, increased risk of kidney cancer, and changes in blood lipid levels are a few of the harmful effects of PFAS chemicals.
- American Journal of Industrial Medicine. Historical and current usage of per and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS): a literature review.
- Environmental Protection Agency. PFAS explained.
- Department of Ecology. Keeping your home and family healthy.
- National Academies Press. Guidance on PFAS exposure, testing, and clinical follow-up.
- US DHHS. Toxicological profile for perfluoroalkyls.