What are PFAS and how can we avoid their harmful health effects?

They’re in packaging, non-stick pans, cosmetics, the snow on Mount Everest and probably your blood: PFAS (poly- and perfluoroalkyl substances), a group of almost 5000 useful, but harmful substances. They stay up to a millennium in nature before they’re broken down. When you’re regularly exposed they build up in your body and it takes years before you get rid of them. But what are their effects on our health and how can we prevent exposure?

How PFAS entered our world

PFAS don’t naturally appear in nature and are man made substances. The most famous PFAS is Teflon and was accidentally discovered by Dr. Roy Plunkett in the 1938 in the laboratories of the company DuPont in the search for a non-toxic refrigerant.

At first he didn’t know what to do with the new substance. But in 1942 the scientists from the Manhattan Project presented him with a problem. They needed a material that could withstand the super corrosive uranium hexafluoride so that they could enrich the uranium and create the atom bomb. They found that teflon exactly fit the criteria: it’s extremely stable, doesn’t degrade and is non-corrosive, it’s a ‘forever chemical’.

After World War II Teflon was declassified and companies like DuPont and 3M found widespread commercial use for it in the 1950’s. In the following years many new applications were developed: non stick pans, water repellent spray, fire fighting foam, pesticides, paint, makeup, shampoo, sunscreen, shaving cream, microwave popcorn bags, pizza boxes and other grease-resistant resistant packaging, candy wrappers, plastic water bottles, cleaning products and more…

The first signs of PFAS’ negative health effects

In humans several types of PFAS have been linked to cancer, thyroid disease, reduced immunity, reduced fertility, high cholesterol, birth defects and other diseases. While companies were aware of the risks, it took a long time before they changed public policy:

1960’s: A study showed that a particular PFAS (AFFF) caused liver damage in animals and humans.

1970’s: Research by 3M finds that two other types of PFAS (PFOA and PFOS) are toxic.

1980’s: The US navy finds that a type of PFAS (AFFF) kills aquatic life and destroys the environment. Research by 3M shows that their employees have PFAS in their blood.

1999: The adverse health effects become really clear. PFAS shows up in the blood of people all over the country. And the first lawsuit is filed against DuPont by a farmer, as grippingly depicted in the movie ‘Dark Waters’. His cattle suddenly began to fall ill and die. He exposed that DuPont dumped tons of PFAS (PFOA) into a local landfill, poisoning the cattle’s water supply and the Ohio River, polluting 80,000 people’s drinking water.

2000: DuPont settles the lawsuit for an undisclosed sum. 3M announces it will halt production of two types of ‘long-chain’ PFAS (PFOA and PFOS), and stops putting them in products by 2002. But it starts to create “short-chain” PFAS types that are less well researched, but likely equally harmful according to scientists.

2006: After the EPA declares long-chain PFAS a likely carcinogen, they encourage all major manufacturers to stop producing it. DuPont and other pledge to phase out production by 2015, but just like 3M, begin to produce more ‘short-chain’ PFAS.

2012: The EPA directs large public water systems to test if PFAS is within the recommended 200 parts per trillion for PFOS and 400 ppt for PFOA. The results show that 110 million Americans are exposed to higher levels of PFAS in their drinking water. A medical research demonstrates a link between PFOA exposure and six diseases as well: testicular cancer, kidney cancer, high cholesterol, ulcerative colitis, thyroid disease and pregnancy-induced hypertension.

2016: The EPA changes to a stricter advisory level for PFOA and PFOS in drinking water of 70 ppt.

2017: DuPont settles a class action lawsuit from 2001 by 3550 affected individuals for $671 million, but denied any wrongdoing.

2022: After more research EPA changes to a much stricter advisory level for drinking water to 0.02 ppt for PFOS and 0.004 ppt for PFOA. They also issued final health advisories former modern PFAS substances like HFPO-DA and its ammonium salt GenX at 10 ppt and for PFBS at 2000 ppt.

Movie tip

In Dark Waters a corporate defense attorney takes on an environmental lawsuit against DuPont that exposes a lengthy history of  PFAS pollution.

The problem with changing to different types of PFAS

As it became clear to the public that the ‘long-chain’ PFAS types (PFOA and PFOS) were harmful to human health, companies started to produce other ‘short-chain’ PFAS types, like GenX. Because there are so many different PFAS materials, there is no good research available for all their different effects on human health. In most countries it is also not up to the producer of a new chemical to do large studies on its effects on human health, but it needs to be shown by other parties over time. And now various scientists are saying that these ‘short-chain’ PFAS types could be just as harmful1, but again it will likely take a long time before enough research is done to fully clarify this.

What to do to reduce your exposure to PFAS

While PFAS is basically everywhere in nature now, it is usually there in arguably too high, but not very harmful concentrations. Unless you are at a contaminated site where PFAS was produced, processed or dumped. In those cases it’s important to test your water for contamination and avoid eating food from that area. So maybe do a quick google search to see if you live near such a location.

If you’re in doubt about your water quality you can ask your local waterprovider what they are doing about PFAS and how much is in the water. You could even consider installing an osmosis (RO) waterfilter in your home to filter out the PFAS if the water quality is bad.

Products to avoid

There are also a few products you can avoid to reduce your exposure:

  1. Stop using your non-stick pan. While it is generally deemed safe if you use it at low heat without scratching it, this can be hard to totally avoid. The problem is that many manufacturers will now say their pan is PFOA free, but they switched to the newer, but likely equally harmful GenX type PFAS, which doesn’t make them PFAS free.
  2. Don’t use microwave popcorn.
  3. Many dental floss products contain PFAS, so if you want to use it, specifically look for one that is PFAS free.
  4. Avoid products with stain-resistant coatings like furniture, fabrics or carpets. When in doubt specifically ask for a PFAS free product.
  5. Avoid fastfood packaging. While in the EU they are working on a ban for PFAS in food related products, It’s still used a lot, especially in packaging for greasy food. If you still want to eat fast food you could bring your own container, or eat in the restaurant from a real plate if that’s possible.
  6. Avoid clothing and sports gear that use Scotchguard, Teflon or Goretex coatings or any other newly invented coating containing PFAS to make them waterproof or easier to clean. While several manufacturers are trying to phase out forms of PFAS, they are still widely used.
  7. In our diet most of the PFAS comes from fish and meat, especially from animals high up the food chain. PFAS bioaccumulates so when a larger animal eats another animal the PFAS builds up in the larger animal. The concentrations are highest in the liver, so especially avoid eating that. Quitting meat or reducing meat consumption is not just good for the climate, but will come with health benefits in this area too.
  8. Check the label of cosmetics, cleaning products and household items to see if you can find the words PTFE(polytetrafluoroethylene), perfluor, perfluorooctyl, triethoxysilane, perfluorononyl dimethicone, perfluorodecalin, or perfluorohexane. If so, don’t use them.

We need political action

The problem is that because there are many PFAS types with complicated names, it is hard to recognize and sometimes impossible to know if there are PFAS in a particular product. We mostly rely on governments to pass laws that restrict PFAS or at least make it clear on the packaging if the product contains it. So make it known to the representatives of your political parties that you care about this and support environmental groups that take action.

Already steps are taken around the world to reduce the use of PFAS in various products, but still we are far from a total ban. The United States has limited regulation and it varies from state to state, but the EU is now working on proposals to strongly restrict PFAS, which they will review in 2023.

The next step towards a sustainable life

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