Understanding PFAS: Prevalence, Health Effects, and How to Reduce Exposure

Perfluoroalkyl and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances, commonly abbreviated as PFAS, are chemical compounds containing carbon-fluorine bonds. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), in 2015, up to 97 percent of Americans had PFAS in their blood. However, more recent findings from the CDC and other agencies show that 99 percent of Americans have PFAs in their system today

Let us dissect the “forever chemicals” that have gained notoriety due to their persistence in the environment and potential to deteriorate health.


What Are PFAS?

PFAS belong to a large family of man-made chemicals. Their prevalence in various products and widespread contamination have raised alarms among scientists, health professionals, and environmental advocates.

PFAS have unique properties, such as resistance to water, oil, and heat. These attributes have made them desirable for use in various industrial applications, including manufacturing processes in sectors like textiles, electronics, and firefighting. However, the same properties that make these artificial compounds useful also contribute to their persistence in the environment. PFAS do not break down easily, leading to their accumulation in soil, water, and air, resulting in long-lasting contamination.


How Widespread Are These Chemicals?

Affecting billions worldwide, the most common sources of PFAS contamination and the causes of PFAS human exposure include:

  • Industrial manufacturing processes. The release of PFAS through industrial waste and emissions contributes heavily to environmental contamination.
  • Aqueous film-forming foams (AFFF). AFFFs are a type of firefighting foam used to extinguish flammable liquid fires. They contain PFAS compounds and have been a main source of PFAS contamination, particularly near military bases, airports, and fire training facilities.
  • Consumer products and household items. PFAS are present in non-stick cookware and utensils, waterproof clothing, personal care products, and food packaging, among others. These products contribute to PFAS exposure through direct contact, ingestion, or inhalation.


How Exposure to PFAS Affects Human Health

Studies have linked PFAS exposure to various health issues, including developmental delays in children, reduced immune function, and hormonal disruption. Furthermore, according to a 2022 study, long-term exposure to PFAS could lead to cancer development in the kidneys, testicles, pancreas, liver, and thyroid.


Understanding Chemical Jargon

Reading labels and ingredient lists is an essential step in identifying PFAS-containing products. However, detecting the presence of PFAS can be challenging, as manufacturers may not list or mention them explicitly. In many cases, manufacturers use complex chemical names or generic terms that make it difficult for consumers to discern whether a product contains chemicals. As such, you must familiarize yourself with standard PFAS-related terms, which include:

  • “Fluorinated,” which refers to the use of fluorine in a product. This can include terms like “fluoropolymer” or “fluorocarbon,” indicating the potential presence of PFAS. In addition, be cautious of products labeled as “waterproof,” “non-stick,” or “stain-resistant,” as these properties often rely on the use of PFAS chemicals.


Identifying PFAS in Everyday Products

No matter which class in the social hierarchy someone comes from, each and every one of us come into contact with an array of PFAS-containing products. They range from household items and personal care products to food packaging. Awareness of these potential sources and learning how to identify them can pave the way for better purchasing decisions and an overall reduction in exposure.


How to Reduce PFAS Exposure

Minimizing PFAS exposure starts at home, where you can control your choices and take proactive steps to reduce contact with these harmful chemicals.


1. Test Your Drinking Water

You can test your home’s water source for PFAS contamination by hiring a certified laboratory to determine if it contains high levels of toxic chemicals. Laboratories can analyze drinking water for PFAS using either USEPA Method 537, 537.1, or 533. Use the Online Searchable Laboratory Certification Listing to find professionals near you.

If PFAS are present, consult with local health authorities or water treatment specialists to explore appropriate mitigation options. You can also install a certified activated carbon filter or reverse osmosis system in your home to remove PFAS from drinking water. Just ensure your chosen filtration system specifically targets PFAS removal.


2. Choose Chemical-Free Cookware and Utensils

As these product categories are more likely to contain PFAS, ensure to:

  • Opt for cookware and bakeware made from materials like stainless steel, cast iron, or ceramic, which do not contain PFAS coatings.
  • Use wooden or stainless-steel utensils instead of non-stick or Teflon-coated options.

Related: BPA: A Toxic Chemical Found in 95% of the Population


3. Avoid Packaging Known to Contain PFAS

Minimize the use of microwave popcorn bags, pizza boxes, and fast food wrappers, which are commonly treated with PFAS. Instead of buying ready-made or heat-and-eat food, consider making homemade popcorn using a stovetop or air-popper, have a DIY pizza-making night with your family, or transfer takeout food to PFAS-free containers before consuming. The bottom line is to choose fresh, unpackaged food whenever possible to reduce exposure to PFAS in packaging materials.

Read Alternatives to PFAS-Coated Food Packaging for more information on how to protect your family from ingesting these forever chemicals.


4. Opt for PFAS-Free Cleaning and Personal Care Products

Ensure to read labels carefully and choose cleaning products, detergents, cosmetics, and bath products that explicitly state “PFAS-free.” You can also look for certifications or eco-labels indicating that the product does not contain harmful or carcinogenic chemicals.

Related: The Toxic 15: Harmful Chemicals in Makeup, Skincare, and More


5. Check for PFAS in Carpeting

Before purchasing new furniture for your home, ask the manufacturer about their PFAS usage. For instance, did you know carpets are a significant source of PFAS exposure, particularly for children? Research also shows that fluoropolymers in carpeting can gradually release PFAS into the environment.

Outside of your home, you can make the world a better place through the following: 


6. Dispose of PFAS-Containing Products Responsibly

More than 120 types of PFAS are in the blood serum or bodies of birds, monkeys, pandas, tigers, horses, cats, and other mammals. Practicing proper disposal methods for PFAS-containing products can protect these innocent animals.

You may reach out to your local waste management facility or environmental agency for proper guidance. In general, the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants says PFAS waste should either remain in a controlled landfill to prevent the chemical from leaching into the environment, or be thermally destroyed at a minimum of 1,100°C/2,012°F.


7. Advocate for PFAS-Free Products

Support companies that develop and produce PFAS-free alternatives. You can promote them by sharing your positive experiences with PFAS-free products through reviews and recommendations or word-of-mouth, encouraging others to make the same informed choices.


Take Proactive Steps to Minimize PFAS Exposure

By implementing the above practices, you can reduce your exposure to PFAS at home and in the environment. However, remember that PFAS contamination requires collective action, including advocating for stronger regulations and supporting companies prioritizing PFAS-free alternatives. By engaging in informed consumer choices, raising awareness, and encouraging the adoption of safer alternatives, you can contribute to a healthier and PFAS-free environment.

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