Toxic ‘Forever Chemicals’ are Almost Impossible to Avoid, Environmental Advocates Still Await Federal Regulations

Have you ever wondered what made pots and pans nonstick, or what made food takeout containers grease-proof? Perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) have been used by companies since the 1950s as stain-resistant, water-repellent and grease-proofing treatments for paper products and textiles, but recent studies have revealed that these synthetic chemicals do much more than once thought.

PFAS chemicals never fully break down in the environment, earning them the name “forever chemicals.” Their everlasting existence isn’t the only reason why 11 states and 22 retailers have enacted policies to ban PFAS in food packaging; studies show that any level of exposure to these chemicals can result in several adverse health effects.

Where are PFAS found?

PFAS are able to easily travel through wastewater from the factory that makes or uses them and pollute the natural water, soil and air around it. Not only does this allow for the chemicals to contaminate food grown in the polluted soil and the drinking water reservoirs, but PFAS in the air become part of the atmosphere, allowing the chemicals to travel through rainwater, creating a much more widespread issue.

A variety of products use PFAS, such as carpets, couches, stain-resistant clothes, cell phones, cosmetics, fast-food wrappers and much more, making exposure almost impossible to avoid. A 2019 report noted that PFAS have been detected in the blood of 98% of Americans, and while levels of these chemicals may drop over time, the body can store them in different organs, leaving them to persist even after exposure ends.

How do PFAS affect the body?

PFAS have been linked to several health issues, including abnormally high cholesterol levels, a weakened immune system, decreased vaccine response, cancer, high cholesterol, reduced fertility and more.

In late July, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine released a 300-page report with guidance for clinicians on how to test, diagnose and treat those who may have been exposed to PFAS. Those who are at high risk, according to the report, are people in “vulnerable life stages'' including fetal development in pregnancy, early childhood and old age. Additionally, those who live near high-exposure areas such as commercial airports, military bases and wastewater treatment plants, and firefighters and workers in fluorochemical manufacturing plants, are at high risk.

What is being done to reduce PFAS exposure?

There are several ongoing initiatives to help contain the PFAS problem. Just last month, over 100 environmental health groups sent a letter to Congress urging them to pass the Keep Food Containers Safe from PFAS Act, a federal ban on PFAS in food packaging. If Congress was to pass this bill, they would be continuing the efforts of several states who have already enacted bans on PFAS in food packaging.

Researchers are also studying ways to fully break down the “forever chemical” in the environment and how to remove PFAS from drinking water.

What can you do to reduce your exposure?

There are several steps that you can take to lower your exposure to PFAS chemicals, as suggested by PFAS Exchange:

  • Avoid using takeout containers and other food packaging. Try cooking at home more often and using fresh ingredients.
  • When cooking, avoid nonstick cookware. Opt for cast-iron, stainless steel, glass or enamel products.
  • Avoid eating microwave popcorn or greasy foods wrapped in paper.
  • Don’t use waterproofing sprays and stay away from stain-resistant carpets and upholstery.
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