Forever Chemicals Are Everywhere. Here’s How to Limit Your Exposure.
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Forever Chemicals Are Everywhere. Here’s How to Limit Your Exposure.

Jul 12, 2023

Published April 14, 2023

Joe Fassler

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Here’s the bad news: Forever chemicals are everywhere. These toxic compounds, known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), are often used in goods that resist water and grease like packaged foods, cookware, furniture, and outdoor apparel.

PFAS exposure has been linked to a host of health risks, from cancer to fertility issues, and its prevalence in consumer goods means that PFAS are now routinely found in soil, drinking water, our homes, and our bodies.

The good news is that though no one can avoid PFAS entirely, you can take specific actions to reduce exposure and risk to your long-term health.

Experts say that no single product is likely to expose you to dangerous PFAS levels in one use. But because PFAS are so common and build up in the body over time, it’s worth figuring out when you absolutely need or want the slickness these chemicals provide and avoiding it elsewhere.

Since some items and behaviors are much more likely than others to expose you to higher levels of PFAS, being vigilant in the few areas you can control may reduce your overall risk.

The experts we spoke with suggest focusing on three main categories—nonstick cookware, greaseproof food packaging, and water- and stain-resistant goods—and considering an investment in a water filter.

Vigilant consumption has a crucial side-benefit, too: Buying PFAS-free goods sends a message that this topic matters to you and can motivate the industry to develop new alternatives.

The term PFAS refers to a class of more than 4,000 compounds used in industry and consumer goods. These substances vary in their chemical makeup, but it’s widely assumed they can stick around for centuries without biodegrading.

That stubborn quality makes PFAS incredibly useful. Items treated with PFAS can become highly water- and grease-resistant, which is why these chemicals tend to be most prevalent in stuff that’s designed to stay clean and dry: cookware, carpeting, outdoor gear, cosmetics, pizza boxes, bags of microwave popcorn. In recent years, PFAS have been found in everything from so-called compostable takeout bowls to period underwear.

As a class, these chemicals tend to be divided into two subgroups depending on their number of carbon atoms: long chain and short chain. Long-chain PFAS are an older technology (the PFOA used in Teflon pans is the most famous example), and because they’re older, they’re better understood, and their risks have been more clearly established. Some of the most concerning and widespread versions are being rapidly phased out in the United States. Scientists have some reason to believe that short-chain PFAS may be more benign. But they haven’t been as thoroughly studied, and their use is on the rise.

What we know about PFAS and health is still evolving, and only a few compounds out of more than 4,000 have been reviewed for potential health impacts.

Scientists have linked various PFAS to a range of negative outcomes, including higher cholesterol, ulcerative colitis, impaired thyroid function, reduced immune response in children (including decreased responsiveness to vaccines), pregnancy-related hypertension and preeclampsia, lower birth weights, liver disruption, and cancer (specifically kidney and testicular cancers).

People are primarily exposed to PFAS via ingestion and inhalation. The most severe clusters of PFAS-related health ailments have been around factories and other institutions that produce or use the chemicals at high concentrations. However, because PFAS are easily carried by water, they’ve been found in oceans, lakes, streams, reservoirs, municipal drinking water, and precipitation on every continent, including in remote Arctic ice. Scientists have found PFAS in the bodies of hundreds of animal species, as well as plants, which means they inevitably make their way back up the food chain toward humans.

Most people are more likely to come into contact with PFAS through products, food, and water, and the risks of this kind of day-to-day, lower-level exposure are less understood than those associated with life in and around workplaces that use the compounds.

Thankfully, one of the most dangerous forms of PFAS, PFOA, has largely been phased out in the US. Due to the persistent nature of these chemicals, they’ll still be around for a long time (including in people), but PFOA and PFOS levels detected in Americans’ blood peaked years ago and should continue to decline. That’s due in large part to an initiative of the EPA, which began working with companies in 2006 to voluntarily eliminate its use. In 2016, the FDA banned both PFOA and PFOS in food contact packaging as well. Currently, the FDA is considering listing both PFOA and PFOS as hazardous substances, which could further discourage their use.

Unfortunately, the jury is still out about whether their short-chain replacements are actually safer for us. Our bodies can excrete short-chain PFAS more quickly—often in a matter of months after exposure, as opposed to years or decades for PFOA and PFOS. But an EPA analysis of existing research still links short-chain PFAS to the same cluster of outcomes—including impaired thyroid, liver, and kidney function, as well as developmental risks and reproductive effects. Recent studies have also shown that some short-chain PFAS accumulate in the body more rapidly than previously thought, and may therefore pose more risks than has been generally presumed.

In short, scientists don’t know yet if short-chain PFAS are actually safer for people, which is why some advocates say it is wise to limit PFAS exposure whenever possible.

This article was edited by Katie Okamoto and Christine Cyr Clisset.

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Avoid cooking tools that contain PFAS. Reduce how often you eat out of paper, cardboard, and plant fiber packaging. Get a water filter,Avoid textiles that advertise their waterproof and stainproof qualities