When I wrote last year about PFAS chemicals (also known as “forever chemicals”), I was surprised there wasn’t the degree of alarm that I’d had when learning about this pervasive and permanent group of toxic chemicals found in virtually every human body and in the environment–even in as remote places as the Arctic and Mount Everest.
A year later, as new scientific studies reveal more troubling facts about the health and environmental hazards related to PFAS chemicals, I’ve noticed a growing public awareness, which has only been heightened by recent news. In the past few months, stories have popped up about PFAS-tainted food containers, toxic synthetic turf sports fields, and PFAS contamination found in groundwater and in the air, most notably, as leachate from scores of closed landfills.
Despite all this, consumer confusion remains. There’s also the predictable resistance by manufacturers to clean up contamination sites or make commitments to remove PFAS from their production processes. Our legislative and regulatory bodies have been slow to lead the charge in protecting consumers and establishing strict regulatory limits to these toxic substances. Sadly, we’re left to fend for ourselves in becoming educated consumers.
To shed some light on this critical issue, here’s a list of where you’ll find PFAS chemicals and how you could be exposed. This list is by no means exhaustive, but it will give readers a big-picture overview of how this group of chemicals pervades every aspect of our lives.
For more information, resources, and tips on how to avoid PFAS exposure, see Green That Life’s post, What are Forever Chemicals?
Table of Contents
- PFAS Chemicals in Your Home
- PFAS Chemicals Outside of Your Home
- Your Exposure to PFAS Chemicals in the Environment
- It’s Not All Bad News … Some Good News
PFAS Chemicals in Your Home
PFAS chemicals can be found primarily in water-repellent or stain-resistant clothes, such as rain jackets and outdoor garments, but have also been found in menstrual underwear. Check labels for water-repellent substances such as Gore-Tex or Teflon manufactured prior to 2015.
We can become exposed to PFAS through food grown in PFAS-contaminated soil or water. PFAS compounds have also been detected in widely-used pesticides.
Sources of contamination from packaging include grease-resistant paper, fast food containers/wrappers, microwave popcorn bags, pizza boxes, and candy wrappers.
Don’t think you’re escaping exposure by purchasing compostable products! Despite their environmentally-friendly claims, many of these products have been found to contain PFAS compounds.
Personal Care Products
Cosmetics (nail polish and makeup with long-wearing, water-resistant, waterproof, or sweatproof formulas), personal care items (shampoo, dental floss), and menstrual products can all contain varying levels of PFAS compounds.
A recent study shows high levels of fluorinated compounds in most makeup foundations, lip products and mascaras.
Household Products and Furniture
Exposure to PFAS chemicals can be found in polishes and waxes. Other household products include stain- and water-repellent fabrics, such as stain-resistant coating for carpets and furniture upholstery. In the kitchen, nonstick cookware and plastic water bottles can contain PFAS chemicals.
Flame retardants on the outer casings of computers, TVs, and other electronics contain PFAS chemicals. Although these retardants are being phased out of the electronics production process, it will take years. Human exposure to PFAS from e-waste remains a risk.
Building Materials and Products
The list in this category is extensive and includes flooring, roofing, interior and exterior finish products, such as paint, glass, chemical sealers, and foam plastic insulation.
PFAS Chemicals Outside of Your Home
In the Yard
You can’t escape from PFAS exposure in your yard. A recent study by Sierra Club and Ecology Center of selected home fertilizers made from biosolids found these chemicals in every product and at levels exceeding limits set by Maine–the state with the strictest safeguards for PFAS contamination of agricultural lands.
In the School
Your children aren’t just susceptible to PFAS exposure at home. Food packaging from school lunches and some artificial turf sports fields have been found to contain these substances.
In the Workplace
Workplace exposure can be found primarily in industries associated with the production and manufacturing of chrome plating and electronics, but PFAS chemicals are also detected in mining, fracking and oil recovery operations. Since PFAS chemicals are found in most electronics, wires, and cables, the risk of exposure in office settings could occur.
Your Exposure to PFAS Chemicals in the Environment
The environmental exposure to PFAS chemicals is also extensive. For a rather alarming visual of the extent of PFAS contamination, take a look at The Environmental Working Group’s PFAS contamination map. As of October 5, 2021, 2,854 locations in 50 states and two territories are known to have PFAS contamination.
Living organisms tainted by PFAS include fish and animals, where these chemicals have had the ability to build up and persist over time.
A new study shows the presence of PFAS chemicals in indoor air, including school classrooms, workplaces, and homes. The study’s senior author, University of Rhode Island professor Rainer Lohmann, explains that indoor air, including dust, is another source of PFAS exposure.
Accidentally ingesting contaminated soil or breathing in chemically-laden dust can put you at risk of exposure.
Groundwater and Drinking Water
Military bases and airports are a major source of PFAS exposure due to the use of firefighting foam in firefighting training exercises. A recent study points to extensive PFAS contamination at military sites due to the use of firefighting foam.
It’s Not All Bad News … Some Good News
With an increase in awareness–albeit slow–consumers and lawmakers are raising their voices to demand that manufacturers eliminate PFAS chemicals from products.
The response by manufacturers has been tepid, but there have been small steps forward: Some brands, including L’Oreal, the Body Shop, Isadora, and other cosmetic companies, have announced plans to phase out PFAS chemicals from their products.
In addition, two manufacturers of PFAS-free food packaging have open-sourced their packaging technology. In a joint statement, the companies, Zume and Solenis, explained that “Open sourcing our PFAS-free solution creates a path for brands across the world to remove plastics and harmful chemicals from their consumer packaging and single-use goods.”
When it comes to consumer protection, our lawmakers must step up to codify their rhetoric. At the federal level, the House of Representatives has passed the PFAS Action Act that would require the EPA to establish national drinking water standards for regulating PFAS chemicals, but resistance from the collective water sector has been fierce, so its future is shaky.
The news at the state level is more hopeful. While some states, including Pennsylvania, have been dragging their feet, the positive news is that a growing number of state legislatures are moving forward to regulate PFAS. The latest news is that California recently signed a bill that would ban PFAS from food packaging. If passed, the state will join six others that have passed similar laws.