What are PFAS? The risks of forever chemicals in your home, and what you can do
Forever chemicals are everywhere -- including many household items. Here's what you need to know about them.
Mandy Sleight is a freelance writer and has been an insurance agent since 2005. She creates informative, engaging, and easy-to-understand content on the topics of insurance, personal finance, sustainability, and health and wellness. Her work has been featured in Kiplinger, MoneyGeek and other major publications.
Poly and perfluoroalkyl substances, more commonly known as PFAS or more commonly as forever chemicals, are everywhere -- in food packaging, clothing, household items and even likely inside you. Yet evidence suggests PFAS could have a detrimental effect on your health. The problem: PFAS have been used since the 1940s, and only recently has more focused research into their potentially harmful effects on humans begun.
Here's what you need to know about PFAS, why they're worth understanding and how practically to protect yourself and your family from over-exposure.
What are PFAS?
PFAS are human-made chemicals in the class of fluorinated organic compounds. The unique properties in PFAS make them resistant to grease, heat, oil, stains and water. "However, those same properties that make them useful are also what make them so incredibly difficult to remove from the environment and our bodies," says Amy Dindal, PFAS program manager of Battelle, a global research and development organization.
Although serious research on the topic has only begun in recent decades -- and particularly in the past 10 years -- you can learn about PFAS from several up-to-date resources. The EPA has a PFAS database you can use to know if your community is at risk, plus literature about what researchers have learned so far about PFAS and what they are still working to understand. Californians can access this interactive map to find sources and press releases about PFAS. The Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit dedicated to research and advocacy related to drinking water toxicity and other environmental concerns, also has a PFAS contamination map showcasing the 2,854 locations where PFAS have been detected in water sources as of August 2021.
In October 2021, President Biden announced a plan to prevent PFAS from entering our drinking systems, food supply and air. The plan includes a road map with action steps that will take place over the next three years. The Department of Defense (DOD), Department of Agriculture (USDA), Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) are working together to test and protect against PFAS in this roadmap to recovery.
Do you need to worry about PFAS?
"Worry" may be a strong word -- especially depending on where you live. But paying attention to reports about PFAS in your water supply, for instance, isn't bad.
"Once they are present in local surface water and groundwater, they can spread throughout the ecosystem and into drinking water supplies," said Mark Rigby, vapor intrusion/risk assessment technical lead at Parsons, a company working in communities nationwide to remediate contaminated sites.
The EPA has found a few successful methods of removing PFAS from drinking water, including using activated charcoal, reverse osmosis and nanofiltration methods, and ion exchange resins, which bind to the PFAS. While this helps solve some issues with PFAS contamination, it doesn't solve the core problem.
The EPA has flagged 120,000 sites across the U.S. that "may be handling" PFAS -- "including over 6,000 facilities with a history of environmental violations," according to PEER, an environmental protection nonprofit made up of government employees.
In short, PFAS are ubiquitous. Complicating the picture is the fact that PFAS represent such a broad class of chemical compounds -- so the extent of their risk factor is difficult to quantify. High levels of certain PFAS are associated birth defects, developmental delays, high cholesterol, increased risk of kidney and testicular cancers, liver enzyme changes, higher risk of pregnancy pre-eclampsia and high blood pressure, lowered vaccine response in children and higher risk of contracting communicable diseases, including COVID-19. But not all PFAS are equally associated with such outcomes.
As research still develops, knowing common products in which PFAS are used can help you limit your exposure to these harmful chemicals.
Where are PFAS found?
PFAS can move through the soil, contaminating water sources used for drinking water. They can also build up in food we eat, like fish and wildlife. PFAS are also common in everyday items, including:
Carpets and rugs
Electrical wire insulation
Non-stick cooking surfaces
Plastic water bottles
While eliminating exposure completely isn't feasible for most people, there are things you can do to reduce your exposure to PFAS. Limit or eliminate eating at fast food and other restaurants, advises Dindal. If you get takeout, use your own containers that are free of PFAS instead of takeout food packaging. When cooking at home, avoid using nonstick cookware like Teflon, and use ceramic, cast iron, stainless steel and glass instead.
The major risk in many areas of the country is contaminated drinking water, says Rigby. He advises staying informed about what's in your water by checking consumer confidence reports, which is an annual water quality report provided by your water supplier. Researchers are studying which technologies are best at removing PFAS in drinking water safely and if household water filters are effective.
You can also limit PFAS exposure by not buying stain-, grease-, and water-resistant clothing and products. Check your dental floss, cosmetics, plastic water bottles and cleaning products for PFAS. Becoming aware of the chemicals used to make products you rely on and only purchasing non-PFAS made products can help you avoid PFAS.
Be your own advocate
While the government is beginning to research the effects of PFAS exposure more, that process isn't as quick as many researchers would prefer. Dindal suggests contacting your local representatives to advocate for swift action, encouraging governing and corporate bodies to cooperate to address PFAS contamination. According to Rigby, the best thing you can do is stay informed and know what is happening in your community.