Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, also known as PFAS, are a group of 9,000 different man-made chemicals—all of them with equally unpronounceable and complicated names. But navigating this tongue-twister is the least of our concerns: PFAS are toxic and they’re everywhere.
Biochemists have found them in the bodies of 97 percent of Americans, as well as in breast milk, and researchers believe exposure to these compounds may be associated with multiple health problems, such as immune system disruption, developmental issues, impaired fertility, liver damage, and various kinds of cancer.
Most of the PFAS that make it into our bodies do it through drinking water, but because there’s not one single source of exposure, you can still curb some of these chemicals in your everyday life.
No, but seriously, what exactly are PFAS?
PFAS came to notoriety in the 1940s, when manufacturers started using them in products such as non-stick cookware, stain-resistant fabrics, and water-repellent clothing. These days, you can also find these chemicals in some types of grease-repelling food packaging, waterproof cosmetics, carpets, furniture, and take-out containers.
Other than the fact that they’re ubiquitous, PFAS are especially dangerous because they take more than a thousand years to break down into the environment. This allows them to accumulate in the food chain over time by making their way into the soil, air, and water we and other animals consume. This is why these substances are also known as “forever chemicals.”
Communities living close to where PFAS are used, manufactured, or disposed of are most at risk of exposure. But other types of facilities can be dangerous, too: Recent data from the Department of Defense shows that at least 12 US military bases contaminated local water supplies with “extremely high levels” of PFAS during exercises and emergencies.
Yet, whilst forever chemicals might be here to stay for a while, governments around the globe have started to limit or outright ban the use of PFAS in certain areas. The US is no different. In June 2020, the Environmental Protection Agency branded 172 PFAS chemicals as toxic, and the Food and Drug Administration is currently encouraging local manufacturers to agree to a “voluntary phase-out” of certain PFAS in food packaging by January 2024. Some states including New York, California, and Vermont, have taken it further and will start completely banning PFAS in food packaging as soon as December 31, 2022.
Do your own research
Most PFAS contamination happens through the water and food we consume, so your level of exposure will highly depend on where you live. If you get your water from a public system, the EPA recommends you reach out to your local water company to learn what they’re doing about PFAS and request information about the closest contaminated source.
But you may run into a problem. Research on PFAS hasn’t got enough media attention, says Rebecca Fuoco, media officer at the Green Science Policy Institute. She pored over 205 papers from the PFAS-Tox Database and found that only 7.8 percent of the authors issued a press release and got some attention in the news.
This not only perpetuates a lack of general awareness about forever chemicals, but it also means that in trying to get informed, citizens concerned about PFAS will mostly find academic papers filled with scientific jargon they probably won’t be able to understand.
Sort through your water- and stain-resistant gear
When it comes to your clothes, it’s not about PFAS getting into your skin when you wear them, as much as chemicals making their way into the environment when you wash them.
Check the labels on whatever water- or weatherproof garments you’re buying and avoid materials like Gore-Tex or Teflon, which usually contain PFAS. If you search online you’ll find handy lists of PFAS-free products including outdoor gear, apparel, furniture, and cosmetics.
“Consumables and outdoor gear are probably my biggest risk to PFAS exposure,” says Susan Smith, a hydrogeologist at Dudek, an environmental consulting firm headquartered in California. “I’m currently sorting through my hiking and camping gear to swap out for PFAS-free equipment.”
Avoid non-stick pans
Water- and stain-resistant coatings can contain PFAS, so it’s not surprising that non-stick cooking utensils may have them as well.
The main type of PFAS in non-stick cookware is PFOA. In 2013, the EPA ruled for all manufacturers to disclose their use of the compound, which resulted in most of them replacing it with similarly toxic GenX chemicals and labeling their products as PFOA-free. But that’s not the same as PFAS-free.
In 2020, the Ecology Center, an NGO based in Michigan, tested 24 different pieces of PFOA-free non-stick cookware from different brands and found that 20 percent of the baking pans and 79 percent of cooking pans were coated with PTFE, another kind of PFAS.
To avoid both toxic chemicals and scrubbing stubborn grease, opt for ceramic, steel, or cast iron cookware.
“In cosmetics, by law, all ingredients should be labeled, but they can have very complicated names which make it hard to work out what to avoid,” says Julie Schneider, a geochemist at the environmental NGO, ChemTrust.
The best way to know if you’re carrying toxic chemicals in your makeup bag is to check the ingredients list of every product. Any entry with “fluoro” in its name is a red flag: The F in PFAS stands for fluorine, so any ingredient belonging to the family might be indicative of the presence of PFAS, Schneider explains.
If the full list of ingredients is not listed on your cosmetics or the packaging is too small to read the tiny words, you can get some help from the internet. The Environmental Working Group, an NGO based in Washington DC, put together Skin Deep, an easily searchable online database of brands and products containing PFAS. The site also suggests products vetted by the EWG, so if you find your favorite lipstick is actually toxic, Skin Deep will provide you with a healthier alternative.
It’s important to understand that science is still figuring out what is and isn’t safe, so products using PFAS replacements might still contain problematic chemicals. This is why PFAS-free doesn’t necessarily mean safe or non-toxic.
Try the bead test
The same repellent powers PFAS provide to waterproof fabrics help some food packaging avoid your delicious takeout from becoming a greasy mess. But your health is more important, so you should keep your food as far from PFAS as possible by using the bead test.
Put a drop of olive oil on the surface of any packaging made from paper, molded fiber, or cardboard packaging, like pizza boxes, paper bags, and compostable takeout containers. Olive oil’s polarity is opposite to that of fluorinated molecules in PFAS, Schneider explains, so if the fat forms a perfect bead that the material can’t absorb, there might be a PFAS coating preventing it.
“If it spreads a little bit, then it’s another coating—it’s not PFAS,” she says.
The bead test might not be practical at the grocery store, but you can use this method to test food containers and packaging at home so you can avoid them in the future.
“An analogy can be drawn to how the FDA allows some quantities of insect parts in foods,” she says. “Chemicals, including PFAS, are similar.”
To be on the safe side, you can further reduce exposure by filtering your drinking water with a portable filter, pitcher, or certified filtering device connected directly to your faucet.
According to Smith, reverse osmosis (RO) filters are some of the most effective: they’re typically installed under your kitchen sink and force water through small, semi-permeable membranes to eliminate contaminants.
If you need some guidance, the EPA has some slick tips to learn more about certified in-home water filters, and what features you should look out for when choosing one. But whatever system you get, make sure you keep it working at its best by using and maintaining it according to the manufacturer’s specifications.
Fighting PFAS seems like a lot of work and getting rid of them entirely is still likely impossible—but it’s absolutely worth it. Every measure we take towards eliminating toxic chemicals from our day-to-day lives helps us and our families stay healthy and happier for longer.