PFAS — also known as "forever chemicals" — are found in a wide variety of items, from nonstick cookware to firefighting foam. These manmade chemicals do not degrade in the environment, and because they are so widely used around the world, PFAS are present in water, air, and soil, as well as the blood of humans and animals. PFAS have also been linked to cancer, and opponents say these omnipresent chemicals are causing a public health crisis. Here's everything you need to know:
What are PFAS?
Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are synthetic chemicals that are not known to break down in the environment. PFAS date back to the 1940s, and are used to make products that repel heat, stains, and water. More than 9,000 PFAS have been identified.
What are some household items that contain PFAS?
PFAS are found in nonstick cookware, stain-resistant carpets, microwave popcorn bags, takeout packaging, and waterproof hiking and camping gear.
What are the health effects of PFAS?
When these chemicals are produced or used, they can leech into the soil, water, and air, and over time, accumulate in the environment and the blood of people and animals. The Environmental Protection Agency says research has shown that some PFAS are linked to reproductive issues in women, like decreased fertility; developmental delays in children; increased risk of prostate, kidney, and testicular cancers; increased cholesterol levels; and interference with hormones. There are a lot of things the EPA is still trying to understand about PFAS, including how to remove PFAS from drinking water and how to manage and dispose of PFAS.
The Biden administration announced last fall that it is accelerating efforts to protect Americans from PFAS. The Food and Drug Administration is expanding testing to better estimate how people are exposed to PFAS through food, while the Department of Agriculture is "investigating the causes and implications of PFAS in the food system." The Department of Defense is also conducting cleanup assessments at almost 700 DOD and National Guard locations where PFAS may have been released.
How do you get PFAS in your system?
By breathing in contaminated air, drinking contaminated water, and eating contaminated food. The Guardian recently conducted an analysis of water samples collected in nine different cities in the United States, and found that the water test used by the EPA is so limited in its scope — it only detects 30 types of PFAS compounds — that it likely misses high levels of PFAS pollutants. This means regulators do not have a clear picture of PFAS contamination in the U.S. "There are so many PFAS that we don't know anything about, and if we don't know anything about them, how do we know they aren't hurting us?" Kyla Bennett, policy director at the advocacy group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, told The Guardian. "Why are we messing around?"
What can I do to limit my exposure to PFAS?
The EPA says if your water comes from a public drinking water system, contact the utility to see if they have tested the water for PFAS, and what steps they might be taking to tackle contamination. If you have a private well, conduct regular testing of the water and consider installing filters that are certified to lower PFAS levels. If you find your water is severely contaminated, find an alternate source of water and use that for drinking, cooking, and brushing your teeth. Check to see if the fish you eat comes from waterways that are contaminated, and if you have questions about whether there are PFAS in the consumer products you keep at home, contact the Consumer Product Safety Commission.
Are companies doing anything to remove PFAS from their products?
Many fast-food and fast-casual restaurants, including McDonald's and Panera Bread, have said they will reduce or eliminate PFAS from their packaging, and IKEA is restricting the use of PFAS in its textile materials. Washington and Maine are among the states that have either banned PFAS in food packaging or are getting closer to eliminating their use.