PFAS: Pretty Freaking Awful Stuff
Or, per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances - you can choose
What is PFAS?
PFAS, are synthetic man-made chemicals that have been used since the 1950's. They are otherwise known as "forever chemicals" because they do not breakdown, so stay in the environment and can build up in the bodies of humans and animals and even in plants (1). The most well-known PFAS is probably Teflon. Yep, the OG nonstick coating, otherwise known as PTFE. Most likely you've heard of how when Teflon starts to peel off or chip from our pans it can be bad, but this is just one of thousands of PFAS chemicals.
Where is PFAS found? And why?
PFAS chemicals are used in non-stick cookware, water-repellent clothing and outdoor gear, stain resistant fabrics and furnishings, some cosmetics, firefighting foams, food packaging, building materials, and has many other industrial uses. While some things like waterproof camping gear might seem a more obvious application of their stain and water repellent properties, other things like food packaging might be a little less obvious, but not when you realize why. It would be super annoying if your cheesy pizza seeps oil through the paper take-out box. So, the manufacturers coat or make products with PFAS to make them more durable and convenient. So, any time you think about a raincoat, or a cardboard-looking take-out container that seems impervious to oil, or even a stain-resistant fabric that somehow won't stain even if you smear ketchup on it, 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, soil, air, and drinking water as well.
What are the health effects of PFAS chemicals
Many studies have been done investigating the effects of PFAS on humans. The best studied are PFOA and PFOS. Most have found that they do not break down easily and can stay 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 (2). 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 to avoid PFAS?
Because PFAS chemicals are everywhere, it's impossible to avoid every single exposure. That being said, trying to limit your exposure by making sure the products you bring into your home don't contain them is a start. It's also a great way to reduce the demand for products with these harmful chemicals.
Knowing where we often find these chemicals helps us know how to avoid them.
Fabrics and upholstery: The easiest way to avoid them is to not buy or bring products into our homes that are labeled as being stain or water resistant or repellent. Sometimes these products are also labeled as performance fabrics or treated with a performance finish. While these properties might seem magical, they all come with a cost. 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 and naturally stain resistant.
Clothing and gear: When looking for rain jackets and outdoor gear, PFAS free options are available. Many brands have committed to phasing out PFAS, with many PFAS free products on the market now. Green Science Policy Institute has a good list of brands that have PFAS free products. We also have recommendations for PFAS free adult rain jackets, kids rain gear, and snow jackets.
Cookware: In terms of avoiding PFAS through cookware and bakeware, there are naturally nonstick options like cast iron and carbon steel, or ceramic non-stick coatings that are PFAS free. We have recommendations for non-stick alternative pans and baking essentials.
Food: 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.
In terms of food packaging, this can be a little trickier to avoid (which is why we need better government regulation, see below). PFAS has been found in fast food wrappers, take out containers, and pizza boxes. Many restaurants and retailers are moving to phase out PFAS, but in the meantime you can transfer your food out of the packaging as soon as you can and definitely don't microwave food in takeout containers.
Cosmetics: PFAS has also been found in cosmetics like mascara and foundation. Finding PFAS free products can be difficult especially if the brand isn't upfront about it, but the first thing to do is check the ingredients list and look for any ingredients that have the word "fluoro" in it, that's usually a pretty good indication that there is some type of PFAS chemical in the product! You can also check EWG Skin Deep to see if your product is listed on the database and if it has PFAS in it.
Since you can't be sure if the ingredients list is accurate or not, another option is try natural or clean makeup brands. Often these brands have fewer chemical additives in them and ingredients are screened for potential health effects. Some clean beauty retailers are Sephora Clean, Target Clean, Credo Beauty, Follian, and Detox Market. And other stores like Walmart, Target, Rite Aid, CVS, Walgreens, and Amazon have all started to take action by looking for toxic chemicals in their beauty products.
Water: Lastly, 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.
Anything else I should know about PFAS?
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.
PFAS legislation that will protect everyone
Thankfully with more and scientific evidence that PFAS should be regulated chemicals governments are starting to take action! There has been the most action at the state level. For example, laws in Maine and Washington have banned PFAS in a wide range of products like food packaging an cosmetics. Many other states are phasing out PFAS in specific product categories like food packaging or firefighting foam. Some states are also starting to regulate PFAS in drinking water. The EPA has established a road map on how they are going to address PFAS, but unfortunately they have not moved as fast as states have. Wouldn't it be great to not have to read any ingredient labels or have to ask companies about materials used in their products? We can't wait!