PFAS, short for per-and-poly-fluoroalkyl substances, was developed in 1946 by DuPont and was introduced in nonstick cookware coated with Teflon. 3M ultimately became the primary manufacturer of products containing PFAS. Since then, the family of fluorinated chemicals that sprang from Teflon includes thousands of nonstick, stain-repellent and waterproof compounds called. PFAS are unavoidable in today’s society, with heavy use contributing to contamination of soil, water, and detectable amounts found even in animals and people’s blood. PFAS do not break down as other chemicals do, and can remain in the body for years.
In mid-June 2022, the Environmental Protection Agency [EPA] put out a new advisory warning that even tiny amounts of some of PFAS chemicals found in drinking water may pose risks. This release supports previous studies that suggested even small doses of PFAS can be linked to cancer, reproductive and immune system harm, and other diseases.
Where are PFAS found?
Manufacturers use PFAS to make products resistant to oil, heat, stain, or water. They are found in everything from cosmetics, to outdoor gear, non-stick pans, food wrappers, and countless others, according to the CDC. Arlene Blum, a biophysical chemist and the executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute, explains that PFAS are useful, yet dangerous:
“They’re the best in that they’re very useful at keeping things dry, keeping grease out of things. But they’re the worst because… they never break down, and all of the ones that have been studied have been found to be harmful.”
The Agency for Toxic Substances and Diseases Registry shares that PFAS in the body do eventually dissipate, but as we are continually exposed to products, water, soil, and other sources, our bodies never have the opportunity to completely clear the chemicals from our bodies. On average, it takes PFOA or PFOS (types of PFAS) around 4 years to reduce by half within a human body. Other PFAS dissipate faster, but again, continual exposure means that we constantly replenish the levels of chemicals and our body and the health risks that they post.
The EPAs newest lowered the “safe” threshold of PFAS to nearly zero. PFAS still pose risks at levels so low that they’re not detected, the EPA said. Some known health issues related to PFAS include:
- Testicular, kidney, liver and pancreatic cancer.
- Reproductive problems
- Weakened childhood immunity
- Low birth weight
- Endocrine disruption
- Increased cholesterol
- Weight gain in children and dieting adults
The impact often begins before birth
The original versions of the chemicals developed by DuPont were called “long chain” chemicals because they contain eight carbon atoms, and were ultimately banned by the Environmental Protection Agency. Unfortunately, the FDA and the EPA have since allowed an alternative set of chemicals to be used in products. These new “short chain” chemicals (with six carbon atoms) have also been shown to cause cancerous tumors in lab animals. One study from Auburn University suggests that short chain chemicals may be at least as dangerous, if not more than, long chain chemicals. Researchers shared that short-chain PFAS compounds are “more widely detected, more persistent and mobile in aquatic systems, and thus may pose more risks on the human and ecosystem health” than their long-chain predecessors. DuPont shared results form one of their own studies in January 2013 that revealed that rats given various amounts of the new chemical GenX over two years developed cancerous tumors in the liver, pancreas, and testicles.
Studies also suggest that low doses over extended period of times interfere with reproductive health and the health of unborn babies. Research on the impact of GenX also found that rats exposed to higher amounts of the chemical were more likely to give birth early and have babies that weighed less. Another study showed that female rats exposed to GenX reached puberty later than the unexposed animals.
Perhaps most concerning is new information of the severe impact that exposure to PFAS can have on an unborn child, eventually leading to childhood development of liver disease not typically found until later adulthood. New studies have narrowed down the rising amount of liver disease cases as a result of exposure to PFASs in utero. Rates of pediatric NAFLD (non-alcoholic fatty liver disease) have been steadily increasing, with 36 kids out of every 100,000 having the disease in 2009 compared to 58.2 per 100,000 in 2018, according to research published in Pediatrics in 2020.
Cases of NAFLD (read more about NFLD in adults, here), are occurring at higher levels than previously and continue to shed light on the dangers PFAS pose to human health. One study of mothers and their children in Europe, published July 6th, 2022 in JAMA, provides evidence that prenatal exposures to PFASs (among other chemicals), and metals were associated with increased liver injury risk in children.
- NAFLD affects almost 10% of all children in the United States
- Approximately 1% of 2 to 4 year olds have NAFLD
- 17% of 15-19 year olds have NAFLD
- 38% of obese children have NAFLD
How can we reduce exposure to PFAS?
The Agency for Toxic Substances and Diseases Registry has suggested that exposure to PFOA and PFOS from today’s consumer products is usually low, especially when compared to exposures to contaminated drinking water. But some products that may contain PFAS include:
- Some grease-resistant paper, fast food containers/wrappers, microwave popcorn bags, pizza boxes, and candy wrappers
- Nonstick cookware
- Cardboard packaging
- Firefighting foam
- Stain resistant coatings used on carpets, upholstery, and other fabrics
- Water resistant clothing
- Cleaning products
- Personal care products (shampoo, dental floss) and cosmetics (nail polish, eye makeup)
- Paints, varnishes, and sealants
According to the ATSDR other common exposure sources beyond just consumer products include:
- Drinking contaminated municipal water or private well water
- Eating fish caught from water contaminated by PFAS (PFOS, in particular)
- Accidentally swallowing contaminated soil or dust
- Eating food that was packaged in material that contains PFAS
The CDC shares these recommendations for decreasing exposure to PFAS:
- If your drinking water is contaminated above levels specified by the EPA or your state government, use an alternate water source for drinking, preparing food, cooking, brushing teeth, and any other activity when you might swallow water. If you do not know if your water is contaminated, ask your local health department.
- Avoid eating contaminated fish. Check with your local or state health and environmental quality departments for fish advisories in your area and follow the advisories.
- Even though recent efforts to remove PFAS have reduced the likelihood of exposure, some products may still contain them. If you have questions or concerns about products you use in your home, contact the Consumer Product Safety Commission at (800) 638-2772.
If you are concerned about your level of exposure to PFAS, please speak to your provider as there are blood tests available to determine the level within your body. However, despite testing, the blood test will not provide information to pinpoint a health problem nor will it provide information for treatment, according to the CDC. The blood test results will not predict or rule-out the development of future health problems related to a PFAS exposure.
It may sound hopeless. These toxic substances were developed to make our lives easier, instead they’ve impacted people in ways no one could have imagined. But, knowing does make a difference. Doing everything you can to minimize exposure as discussed above is a good start. As is eating healthy, staying active and getting annual well checks to pick up any issue as early as possible.