Science

PFAS: Pretty Freaking Awful Stuff

Or, per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances - you can choose

Where can I find this stuff? And why?

The most well-known PFAS is probably Teflon. Yep, the OG nonstick coating. This is a perfluorinated chemical, and we all have heard how when it starts to peel off or chip from our pans it can be bad.

Perfluroalkyl substances (PFAS), sometimes called PFOA and PFOS, which are specific types of PFAS or PFCs which stands for per- and polyfluorinated chemicals, are used in a variety of different products (more than just pots and pans) because they are water and oil resistant. That makes them super useful for products that we don't want to get wet or stain. Think items like waterproof jackets, stain-resistant fabric on couches or carpets, water-repellent camping gear, and food packaging. The food packaging is a little less obvious, but not when you realize why. It can be super annoying if your cheesy pizza seeps oil through the paper take-out box. So, the manufacturers coat these products with PFAS to make them more durable.


So, any time you think about a raincoat, or a cardboard-looking take-out container that seems impervious to oil, or even stain-resistant fabric, think of your old, wonky, chipping nonstick pan.

Because PFAS is used in so many different products, there are lots of ways for the chemicals to spread throughout our environment. The three main ways are through manufacturing releases, runoff from fighting fires (more on this later), and as it escapes or chips off of PFAS-containing products. This means these chemicals are often found in our waterways and drinking water as well.

What can it do to me?

Many studies have been done investigating the effects of PFAS on humans. Most have found that they do not break down easily and can live in our bodies for long periods of time. Research has shown that PFAS can cause reproductive and developmental difficulties, liver and kidney problems, as well as increased cholesterol levels. Other worries include: an altered immune system, thyroid hormone disruption, cancer, and low infant birth weight, which is known to cause many other problems later in life for those children. Research in animal studies has also shown that animals exposed to PFOA and PFOS developed tumors.

What can I do about it?

Knowing where we often find these chemicals helps us know how to avoid them. The easiest way to avoid them is to not buy or bring products into our homes that are touted as being stain or water resistant or repellent. While these properties might seem magical, they all come with a cost. Sometimes, the costs are worth it, other times not so much. For example, stain resistant fabrics or "performance" fabrics. It's cool to not have to worry about spilling red wine on your white rug or if your kid goes wild with the markers on the couch, but is that enough to let these "forever chemicals" into your home? We suggest opting for couches and carpets that are not treated with stain resistant chemicals, and instead, going for darker or patterned fabrics and learning how to properly clean up spills that may leave stains. In general, wool is a good option for carpets, upholstery, and even clothing that is relatively water tight.

When looking for jackets, weigh the options. Do you really need waterproof? Probably not, unless you are going on a multi-hour hike through a torrential downpour on a regular basis or something really awesome like climbing a huge mountain. Instead, consider getting a jacket and using a wax product to treat it. (NikWax is safe and comes highly recommended for self-treating clothing.) Avoid things like Scotchguard, which are known to contain PFAS chemicals. Greenpeace has a pretty thorough document talking all about brands and outdoor gear that is PFC free.

Additionally, if you are worried about your drinking water, Dr. Joseph Braun, Assistant Professor in the Department of Epidemiology at the Brown University School of Public Health, recommends getting a water filter.

"I think the best thing you can do if you are concerned or if you live in a community that has [higher levels] is to use a filter, specifically a granular activated carbon filter. These are the water filters that you can purchase at any home improvement store or even your local drug store. Of course, when you buy a filter you have to maintain it, so it is one thing to have a filter sitting on your drinking water tap, but it means you actually have to use it. You have to turn it on when you are going to use it, and that you have to replace that cartridge as recommended," Dr. Braun suggests.

Another easy one, don't buy microwave popcorn. It is one of the biggest offenders of having PFAS in the packaging and transferring to food. Instead, learn how to easily make popcorn on the stovetop or even on your own in the microwave in about the same amount of time.

Anything else I should know?

One other application where PFAS has been really useful is in firefighting foam, especially around airplanes. Often if a fire were to occur at an airport it would be a fuel fire. According to Dr. Braun, "What you need to do [in these types of fires] is to get the oxygen out of there. What the aqueous film forming foams [PFAS including firefighting foams] are really great when you spray them on the surface of the oil that is on fire, they coat the oil and then block any oxygen from getting in there so the fire goes out." You can find out if your community is affected on this interactive map that EWG and the Social Science Environmental Health Research Institute at Northeastern created.

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