What the Public Needs to Know About PFAS (Forever Chemicals)

Health Effects, History, Exposure, Advocacy Efforts

Toxic chemicals known as perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) might have harmful health effects. They are known as "forever chemicals" because they never break down and, when taken in, remain present in the human body.

PFAS are found in everyday products, such as nonstick cookware, stain-resistant coatings, carpets or upholstery, water-resistant clothing, and cleaning products. PFAS are also detectable in the drinking water supplies of many major cities.

This article will cover the history of PFAS, their uses, products that contain PFAS, your risk of environmental exposure, and more.  

PFAS are chemicals that are in many household items

Uwe Krejci / Getty Images

Brief History of PFAS  

The first PFAS were invented in the 1930s. Their development increased in the 1960s.  

After a deadly U.S. Navy aircraft carrier fire that killed 134 people, scientists developed a PFAS-containing foam-like mixture­—called aqueous film-forming foam—that rapidly puts out fires.

The PFAS helps the mixture spread, so it is highly effective against flammable-substance fires. Since its creation, PFAS-containing aqueous film-forming foam has been installed on all military aircraft, civil ships, and airplanes.  

Today, thousands of PFAS-classified synthetic chemicals are used in various everyday products, including grease-resistant microwave popcorn bags, pipes and wiring (to reduce corrosion), and stain-resistant carpets.  

Chemistry

PFAS belong to a broad group of chemicals that have different properties and uses. These chemicals all contain a carbon-fluorine bond, which gives them strong chemical bond capabilities. This bond means they can resist degradation processes from us and exposure in the environment.  

Two forms of PFAS that have been well researched are perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS). PFOA and PFOS have been used in manufacturing for many decades and are widespread in the environment.

These compounds are no longer made in the United States and have been replaced with alternative PFAS, such as GenX chemicals.

Industrial Use

PFAS are used in many different U.S. industries, including aerospace, automotive, construction, electronics, mining, oil and gas, and food production. PFAS have been used to manufacture consumer products worldwide since the 1950s.

Examples of industrial use include: 

  • Industrial surfactants, resins, molds, plastics: In the mixture of plastics, rubber, and compression mold release coatings, plumbing products that join and clean metals, fluoroplastic layers to create fire-resistant clothing, and composite resin used in denture products
  • Paper products: Surface coatings to that repeal moisture and grease, such as nonfood paper packaging (i.e., cardboard and masking paper) and food contact materials (i.e., pizza boxes and fast-food wrappers)
  • Wire manufacturing: Coating and insulation

Replacement Chemicals  

Concerns regarding the lack of breakdown, accumulation in the environment, and possible risks to human health from PFAS have led manufacturers to consider replacement chemicals.  

It is possible to reformulate or substitute PFAS using longer chain substances to create alternative PFAS that do not cause the same effects as older PFAS. These modifications and phaseouts are currently being adopted in industries throughout the United States.

List of Products With PFAS

Studies have suggested that exposure to PFAS from consumer product use is extremely low. However, it is still wise to be aware of the products you use that might contain these chemicals.  

Consumer products that might contain PFAS include: 

  • Food wrappers and containers, pizza boxes, candy wrappers, and microwave popcorn bags
  • Stain-resistant coatings found on carpets, upholstery, and other household fabrics
  • Water- and fire-resistant clothing
  • Cleaning products
  • Personal care products, including shampoos and dental floss
  • Cosmetics such as nail polish and eye makeup
  • Paints, varnishes, and sealants

Environmental Exposure

Most PFAS move throughout the environment over long distances from their original sources. As a result, they contaminate groundwater, surface water, and soil. Researchers believe that long-term accumulation might be detrimental to food and drinking water sources if this continues.

PFAS Contamination Map in the United States

Several environmental groups have joined forces with researchers to determine the extent of PFAS contamination in U.S. communities.

For example, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) and Northeastern University in Boston have researched and provided details of PFAS pollution in tap water supplies in 27 states and from dozens of industrial and military sources. They have created an interactive map using federal drinking water data and information on publicly documented cases of PFAS pollution.

Another helpful resource that maps PFAS exposure is the Agency for Toxic Substance and Disease Registry (ATSDR). The ATSDR map is specific to PFAS investigations conducted in set regions throughout the United States.

For example, the ATSDR has undertaken studies in Region 1 (southern New Hampshire) of public and private water supplies that nearby factory discharges may have contaminated. PFAS were detected in some of these water supplies, and the state is taking action. The ATSDR is currently evaluating whether the drinking water in those areas is safe.

How Serious Are the Health Risks?

Studies that have examined PFAS have found high levels of certain PFAS can lead to some health risks.

Potential health risks include:

  • Increased cholesterol levels
  • Decreased vaccine response in children
  • Liver enzyme changes
  • Increased risk for high blood pressure
  • Increased risk for preeclampsia (high blood pressure and protein in the urine) in pregnant people
  • Small decreases in infant birth weight
  • Increased risk for some types of cancer, including kidney and testicular cancers

Workers involved in the manufacture or processing of PFAS or PFAS materials are more likely to be exposed to high levels of PFAS than the general population. Exposure results from inhaling or swallowing these chemicals or getting them on your skin. 

Studies have shown that only small amounts of PFAS can penetrate the body through the skin in the general population. Even showering and bathing or washing dishes in PFAS-containing water does not increase exposure.

There is some concern about infant exposure to PFAS through breast milk. However, the current research has found breastfeeding benefits outweigh the minimal risks of infant exposure to PFAS in breast milk.

Federal Action, Advocacy, and Future Plans 

Many environmental groups throughout the United States continually seek to push for clean water initiatives and additional actions to address PFAS exposure. A 2021 presidential order was signed prioritizing climate initiatives, including the federal government's purchase of products that do not contain PFAS.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) established an action plan in 2020 to address PFAS in drinking water, identify and clean up PFAS drinking sources, and expand monitoring of PFAS in manufacturing. The EPA has also established enforcement methods and timelines to aid their monitoring initiatives. 

New kinds of PFAS are also being developed. Many of these will be less persistent in the environment. Research is needed to determine if these newer chemicals pose risks to human health. 

If you want to learn more about what is being done to educate the public and push for governmental regulations or become involved in anti-PFAS advocacy, the PFAS Exchange is an excellent place to start. They provide a list of resources and advocacy groups in the United States.

Lifestyle Choices to Limit PFA Exposure  

Some lifestyle choices can help you to reduce your exposure to PFAS. 

For example, people who prepare meals at home are exposed to fewer PFAS chemicals than people who eat fast food, takeout, or restaurant meals, according to a 2019 Environmental Health Perspectives study. This study also found that high PFAS consumption affects those who consume popcorn from microwave popcorn bags. 

Ways to reduce PFAS exposure are: 

  • Cook at home: If you eat at home, you are less likely to be exposed to packaging that contains PFAS chemicals.
  • Minimize exposure to PFAS-containing food packaging: You can reduce PFAS exposure from food wrappings by removing the wrapping as soon as possible. Do not store or reheat restaurant food in the packaging it came in.
  • Check your drinking water: The EPA does not require routine monitoring of drinking water, but your state might. You can reach your local water utility and see whether they test drinking water for PFAS. If you find out your water has high levels of PFAS chemicals, consider installing a reverse osmosis filter system or a carbon filter.
  • Don't assume that bottled water is safer: Some bottled water products can contain potentially high PFAS levels, according to a 2021 study. This study found PFAS chemicals in 39 of more than 100 bottled water brands. Some of the levels were high enough to concern water quality experts.
  • Don't microwave your popcorn: Use an air popper or make popcorn on the stovetop.
  • Check your cookware: PFAS chemicals in nonstick cookware are unlikely to be released during regular use. However, you shouldn't use these pans if they become scraped or overheated. You might also consider other options, such as stainless steel and cast iron products. 

Summary 

PFAS chemicals are found in various everyday products that make our lives easier. They are called "forever chemicals" because they are not easily broken down.

PFAS-containing products include pizza boxes, fast food packing, nonstick pans, stain-resistant carpets and fabrics, microwave popcorn bags, personal care products, cosmetics, and more.

PFAS chemicals can also find their way into the water supply. They are even found in the human body due to being inhaled, swallowed, and coming in contact with skin.  

Researchers do not believe that everyday exposure provides severe or long-term harm. You can do things to limit your PFAS exposure, such as installing water filters, limiting exposure to restaurant packaging, cooking at home, and not consuming microwave popcorn.

A Word From Verywell

PFAS chemicals are everywhere, and almost everyone has had some exposure to PFAS-containing products. However, most exposures are extremely low and are unlikely to lead to adverse health effects. If you are concerned about your exposure to PFAS chemicals, consider how you can limit your PFAS exposure.  

Anyone who believes they have experienced high occupational exposure should reach out to their healthcare provider to discuss risk and screening for related conditions.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Who is responsible for PFAS manufacturing?

    PFAS chemicals are manufactured in different industries, including aerospace, automotive, construction, electronics, mining, oil and gas, and food production.

  • Can you remove PFAS from your drinking water?

    Consumer water filtration units can effectively remove PFAS compounds from your in-home drinking source. Two types of filtration units used in homes are granular activated carbon filters or reverse osmosis.

  • How do you identify PFAS on food and cosmetic labels?

    PFAS chemicals PTFE (polytetrafluoroethylene), perfluorooctyl triethoxysilane, perfluorononyl dimethicone, perfluorodecalin, and perfluorohexane are used in personal care products and cosmetics. If you want to avoid PFAS in these products, take the time to read their ingredient labels.

  • How do you get involved in anti-PFAS advocacy?

    If you want to learn more about educating the public about PFAS and becoming involved in anti-PFAS advocacy, the PFAS Exchange is a great place to start. Their website offers a list of resources and advocacy groups available in the United States.

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12 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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