Polyfluoroalkyl. Perfluoroalkyl. PFOA, PFAS, PFOA, GenX. Forever Chemicals. You may have seen these terms sprinkled through recent news stories, or even referenced in the new film Dark Waters. What the heck is this all about, and should you be worried?
What are Forever Chemicals?
The term “forever chemicals” is a nickname for a class of manufactured fluorinated chemical substances found in a whole host of consumer products, drinking water, and in industrial practices. Technically known as per- and polyfluorinated compounds, there are nearly 5,000 of these forever chemicals, all grouped into one category, known as PFAS.
The most common and widespread chemicals in the PFAS group are perfluorooctane sulfonic acid (PFOS) and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA). Used for their non-stick (PFOA) and cleaning (PFOS) properties, these chemicals are no longer manufactured, but have been replaced by other PFAS substances, such as GenX.
They’re called forever chemicals because they last, well, forever, or at least indefinitely in your body and the environment.
Where Can You Find Forever Chemicals?
The short answer: everywhere. The list of products containing PFAS is endless and pervasive. Even if you could avoid PFAS-laden products, you’d be exposed in other ways, as I detail below. I’ll update both these lists on a periodic basis.
Materials and products that contain PFAS as an ingredient(s):
- Commercial household products: nonstick cookware (e.g., Teflon), polishes, waxes, paints, cleaning products (carpet, upholstery), and fire-fighting foams.
- Consumer products: cosmetics (nail polish, eye makeup), personal care items (shampoo, dental floss), even menstrual products.
- Clothing: stain-resistant and water-repellent clothing.
Exposure to PFASs from:
- Contaminated drinking water.
- Food. Sources of contamination include packaging (grease-resistant paper, fast food containers/wrappers, microwave popcorn bags, pizza boxes, and candy wrappers), processing equipment that use PFASs, or food grown in PFAS-contaminated soil or water.
- Workplace, including production facilities or industries (e.g., chrome plating, electronics manufacturing or oil recovery). A recent study points to extensive PFAS contamination at military sites due to the use of firefighting foam.
- Living organisms. Fish, animals, where PFASs have the ability to build up and persist over time.
- Soil. Accidentally ingesting contaminated soil and dust.
Before I get to the health effects, it’s important to remember this: You have PFASs in your body right now. These chemicals enter your body in numerous ways, from drinking contaminated water, eating contaminated seafood or food packaged with PFAS components, to using products that contain PFASs. It’s impossible to avoid exposure.
How our bodies process these chemicals is, of course, an important factor and is the subject of continued study, but the current list of health complications from PFAS exposure is already long, and we should be concerned. In fact, when it comes to PFASs in our drinking water, some scientists have concluded that there is no safe level of these toxins.
I list below some of the health complications, but keep in mind that not every chemical in the PFAS group has been studied, so this list could expand.
- Increased risk of cancer.
- Fertility complications.
- Certain birth defects.
- Interference with body’s natural hormones.
- Increased cholesterol levels.
- Increased chance of thyroid disease.
- Reduced effectiveness of childhood vaccines.
- Interference with body’s immune system.
An Unregulated Class of Chemicals
Sadly, our current government regulatory structure is not a reliable safeguard against PFAS contamination. As of today, there is no enforceable regulatory set of standards imposed for this class of chemicals. The Trump administration and its agencies have instead dragged their feet, or even stonewalled attempts to conduct studies and institute consumer protection measures.
In 2018, the White House and EPA attempted to suppress the release of a report by the Centers for Disease Control on PFAS health effects on water contamination near military bases, chemical plants, and other sites. More recently, a new CDC comprehensive study of these chemicals has faced delays and setbacks from the Trump administration. And attempts by Congressional lawmakers to pass protective drinking water standards for PFASs have been met with veto threats by President Trump.
Contrast all this with the progress made by EU governments, which have moved to regulate and restrict the usage of PFASs (as a group), including the recent announcement to phase out these chemicals by 2030.
A bright spot is that some states, including New Jersey, Vermont, and Minnesota, have stepped in to protect their citizens by enacting more rigorous oversight of certain PFAS chemicals.
What Can You Do to Limit Your Exposure?
As I’ve mentioned, our federal government has not provided sufficient consumer protection from PFAS contamination. So what can you do? Take matters into your own hands and empower yourself to protect your body, your community, and your planet.
Well done! You’ve reached this point on my post and you’re now that much more knowledgeable about forever chemicals. Don’t stop here! Read far and wide to stay informed. I list a few resources below for further reading.
- Environmental Working Group‘s personal care database is indispensable, as is the interactive PFAS Contamination map. While there, browse through their numerous other guides and resources.
- Made Safe also has a guide for safe, toxin-free products.
- Centers for Disease Control has a PFAS page that is periodically updated.
- Union of Concerned Scientists is always a useful resource. Check out their fact sheet on PFAS contamination at military bases.
- Environment & Human Health organization is a non-profit dedicated to protecting human health from environmental harm through research, education, and the promotion of sound public policies. Their daily e-blast will keep you up-to-date.
- PFAS Central updates its PFAS-Free Products list on a regular basis.
- Safer States has a handy bill tracker to see what laws your state has passed.
- Food & Water Watch‘s issue brief on PFAS is an excellent deep dive into the issue.
- Northeastern University has a PFAS website that includes timelines and a contamination site tracker.
- STEEP, a partnership of the University of Rhode Island, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, Department of Environmental Health, and Silent Spring InstituteThe University of Rhode Island, undertakes PFAS research and community engagement. The STEEP site contains extensive resources, including news, videos, presentations, and podcasts.
Check Your Water and Food
For drinking water at home, consider purchasing a water filtration system to reduce your exposure to toxins. EWG has a handy water filter guide so you know what kind to get. Remember to change the water filter regularly. When you’re out and about, instead of bottled water, purchase a reusable glass or stainless steel bottle.
For food, control what goes into your body by preparing meals from minimally processed ingredients instead of purchasing pre-packaged meals.
Check Your Products
Be a savvy consumer. Avoid the obvious PFAS-containing products that I’ve written about above. Consult the consumer guides that I list above to know which brands and products to avoid and which are safe(r).
Now that you know what forever chemicals are it’s important to keep an eye out for news and updates. We can’t rely on the current federal regulatory system to inform and protect us, so the key is to continuously check reliable sources for the latest news.
Does this issue have you infuriated, freaked out, or feeling helpless? Or all of the above? Get involved! It can be as simple as signing a petition advocating for more stringent standards, joining an advocacy organization, and/or voting for candidates who campaign for regulatory change.
If you’re really fired up, start a group in your community to put pressure on local and state legislators. I did (for reusable bag legislation), and you can too! The point is to stay engaged with these critical environmental policy issues so you can be part of making that change.