Recent studies show that 99% of Americans have PFAS in their blood
When it comes to chemicals that contaminate the environment, one group stands out: persistent organic pollutants, or "POPS." These are sometimes known as “forever chemicals" – compounds that are resistant to environmental degradation through normal pathways and processes. They are highly toxic chemicals that move easily through the environment, contaminating air, water, ecosystems and food supplies, and harming wildlife as well as humans.
Famous among these pollutants that travel the globe through our oceans and atmosphere are DDT, chlordane and PCBs. The damage and potential harm to life on our planet from these chemicals created an international outcry resulting in a global treaty (the Stockholm Convention) to protect human health and the environment from POPS. The treaty, created on the premise that no single government acting alone can protect its citizens or its environment from POPS, was adopted in Stockholm in 2001 and as of December 2021, 152 countries had ratified the treaty, with the notable exception of the United States and just a few other countries.
As time goes on, more and more chemicals are being added to the original list of twelve POPS covered by the treaty. A fairly recent addition to these “forever chemicals” are a group of chemicals called PFAS. PFAS (pronounced P-fass) stands for per-and-poly-fluoroalkyl substances, of which there are as many as 12,000 currently in use.
At a molecular level, PFAS form an incredibly strong chemical bond, which makes them difficult to break apart or degrade. PFAS are used in products to make them water, grease and stain resistant and in plastics production to make it easier for the materials going through extruders, molds and other manufacturing processes. These chemicals are found in your dental floss and eye makeup, shampoo and shaving cream, in the lining of microwave popcorn bags and pizza boxes, in water-resistant clothing, carpets and upholstery.
The most publicized and well-known use of PFAS is for Teflon or non-stick cookware, but when we begin to look, it is everywhere! It's in plastic food packaging, artificial turf’s green plastic grass blades, candy wrappers and fertilizers. PFAS in firefighting foam and firefighter’s gear have made headlines across the country, as members of this mostly volunteer community are suffering from a variety of illnesses linked to PFAS exposure.
The public is not generally aware of the magnitude of the problem, but as the founder and executive director of a national environmental health non-profit, I am concerned about chemicals that are ubiquitous in our environment and that find their way easily and inadvertently into our bodies. When researchers started to look for PFAS in humans, they found them in blood, tissue and even in breast milk. In fact, recent studies show that 99% of Americans have PFAS in their blood.
So, what do we know so far about the health implications?
The primary concern when it comes to PFAS is that they accumulate in your body. As these toxic chemicals build up, they can cause a wide range of health problems, such as:
• An increased risk of cancer – particularly testicular, prostate, and kidney cancers
• Decreased fertility in both males and females and an increased risk of elevated blood pressure or preeclampsia in pregnant women
• Developmental problems in babies and children – such as low birth weight, variations in bone development, and early puberty (a risk factor for breast cancer)
• Depression of the immune system – resulting in increased susceptibility to infections and a reduced response to vaccines (several recent studies have shown a link between COVID-19 and PFAS, suggesting that PFAS exposure could increase the risk of being infected and reduce the effectiveness of vaccines)
• Endocrine or hormone disruption
• Changes in the production and secretion of liver enzymes
• Increased cholesterol levels and an increased risk of obesity
So, how can you protect yourself and your family from PFAS? The best thing is to find ways to minimize exposure.
First, it is very important to eliminate PFAS in your drinking water. While some municipalities are taking steps to remove PFAS, there are filters you can use at home that significantly reduce these contaminants. Look for filtration systems that have lab tests backing up their claims and proving their systems actually remove toxic pollutants like PFAS.
Second, look for PFAS-free brands of products that you use most frequently. As more and more consumers seek to avoid these chemicals, manufacturers will be looking for safer alternatives.
Discard all non-stick or Teflon cookware, unless the surfaces are ceramic. Choose stainless steel, cast iron, enamel-over-cast iron and glass for safe cooking. Avoid purchasing clothing and other outdoor items that are advertised as water and stain-resistant.
Of course, you shouldn’t have to do all the work to avoid PFAS. This should be the government’s job. Ask your federal representatives why the United States has chosen not to join the Stockholm Convention on POPS, and why the burden is on the public to avoid exposures to chemicals with known toxicity and not on industry to prove their safety.