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What are PFAS Chemicals?

Updated: Jun 27, 2023

These per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances, known as PFAS, do not easily break down in the environment, and some forms simply do not deteriorate, living to their “forever chemical” title. They are widely used in hundreds of products ranging from nonstick pans to firefighting foam. Nearly every American has PFAS in their body. They are found in the blood, breast milk, and even the umbilical cord blood of newborn babies. Aside from their carcinogenic attributes, they can also cause hormone disruption, immune suppression, neurodevelopment, reproductive problems, and liver and thyroid diseases.

​PFAS is not known to break down in the environment and has become a global pollutant that threatens people and wildlife. Once in our bodies, they stick around - with half-lives in people of up to eight years.

What are PFAS Chemicals?

  • PFAS chemicals are a large group of man-made chemicals created in the 1930s and used since the 1950s.

  • PFAS chemicals are also known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances and "forever chemicals."

  • These chemicals were used in aerospace, photographic imaging, automotive construction, aviation industries, coatings for textiles, and everyday products such as cookware, clothing, and firefighting foam.

  • The chemicals keep food from sticking to cookware and make clothes resistant to stains.

  • More than 9,000 PFAS chemicals exist.

  • People can still be exposed to PFAS chemicals because they are in the environment.

  • PFAS chemicals do not break down easily in the environment.

  • PFAS builds up in the bodies of exposed humans and animals.

  • PFAS is in the blood of 97% of Americans.

  • These chemicals have decreased in the United States in the last 10 years.

  • GenX replaced PFOA and is just as toxic

Why are PFAS Chemicals a Concern?

  • Numerous health effects are associated with exposure to low environmental levels of PFAS, supported by different scientific studies.

  • These chemicals are used in hundreds of products globally, exposing people.

  • These persistent chemicals remain in the environment for a long time and do not break down in the environment.

  • PFAS bioaccumulates in our bodies, fish, and wildlife.

  • These chemicals can move through soils and contaminate drinking water sources.

  • PFAS can put you at risk of developing cancer, liver damage, low birth weights, and newborn deaths.

How are you Exposed?

Water Systems: You may have PFAS levels in your water systems, drinking water wells, soil, and outdoor air near industrial areas with frequent PFAS use. Surface Water: Surface water (lakes, ponds, rivers, etc.) and run-off from areas where aqueous (water-based) film-forming fire fighting foam (AFFF) was often used (like military or civilian airfields). Fish & Crops: Can build up in crops, fish, and livestock, contaminating the food we eat—for example, locally caught fish from contaminated bodies of water. Packaging: Food packaging includes sandwich wrappers, takeout containers, fast food wrappers, microwave popcorn bags, pizza boxes, and candy wrappers. Air & Dust: Stain-proofing furniture and carpets release chemicals into the air and dust over time. Consumer Products: In cleaners, personal care products, specialty products such as ski wax, grease-resistant paper, nonstick cookware such as Teflon coated pots and pans, stain-resistant coatings such as scotch guard used on carpets, water-resistant clothing, cleaning products, personal care products (shampoo, dental floss, cosmetics), paints, sealants, etc. Workers: Workers may be exposed to PFAS by inhaling them, getting them on their skin, and swallowing them, but inhaling them is the most likely exposure route.

What are the Health Concerns?

Cancer: PFAS induces tumors in laboratory animals. The International Agency for Research on Cancer has designated PFOS as a possible carcinogen based on epidemiological evidence linking kidney and testicular cancer exposure. Immune System: Studies show that the immune system is sensitive to PFAS. Hormone Disruption: Tests indicate that PFAS affects hormone production and response, affecting estrogen production and response, thyroid hormone signaling, and regulation of fat metabolism. People exposed to higher levels of PFAS have higher total and LDL cholesterol. Reproductive: Laboratory tests associated PFAS exposure with decreased survival of young, disrupted reproductive cycles, and impaired growth of the uterus and ovaries. Developmental: Epidemiological studies have related higher maternal exposure to PFCs to lower birth weight. Liver & Kidney: PFAS is associated with multiple effects on the liver and kidney, including liver lesions, kidney degeneration, and liver function damage. Nearly every U.S. resident has PFAS in his or her body.

What Products Contain PFAS Chemicals?

• Drinking Water • Non-stick cookware • Grease-resistant paper and other fast food wrappers • Outdoor gear with "durable water repellent" coating • Food packaging, including microwave popcorn bags, candy wrappers, and pizza boxes • Stain-resistant carpets, rugs, and furniture • Cleaning products • Firefighting foams, ski wax, and industrial applications

Ways to Reduce Exposure to PFAS Chemicals?

Contaminated Drinking Water: Public water systems are not required to test for PFAS chemicals, and those that do go by recommended health advisories which some states do not have. To reduce exposure to PFAS and protect the health, filter drinking water containing PFAS with either Reverse Osmosis (RO) or a Granular Activated Carbon (GAC) system.

  • Using a filtration system reduces your exposure to drinking, cooking, making baby formula, washing food, brushing teeth, and feeding pets.

Eating Fish from PFAS Contaminated Waterways: Eating fish from contaminated waterways can be harmful because they may contain mercury, PCBs, or PFAS. PFAS builds up in fish, and the more fish you eat with PFAS, the higher your chances of health effects. To reduce your exposure to PFAS in fish, check fish advisories and reduce your consumption. Avoid Swallowing Water in Contaminated Rivers: Avoid accidentally swallowing water in lakes and rivers. Avoid Touching PFAS Foam: Foam with PFAS can have bright white coloring, tends to pile up like shaving cream, can be sticky, and is usually lightweight. Wash hands and rinse pets to prevent swallowing PFAS chemicals. Personal Care Products: PFCs can be found in dental floss and cosmetics, including nail polish, facial moisturizers, and eye make-up. Choose personal care products without "PTFE" or "FLUORO" ingredients.

  • One simple way to identify these potentially harmful ingredients is to look at your product labels for the term “fluoro,” which may appear in a longer name, such as perfluoroalkyl dimethicone perfluorodecalin.

  • PFAS ingredients: PTFE (Teflon), Perfluorononyl Dimethicone, Perfluorodecalin, C9-15, Fluoroalcohol Phosphate, Octafluoropentyl Methacrylate, Perfluorohexane, Pentafluoropropane, Polyperfluoroethoxymethoxy Difluoroethyl Peg Phosphate, Polyperfluoroethoxymethoxy Peg-2 Phosphate, Methyl Perfluorobutyl Ether, Perfluorononylethyl Carboxydecyl Peg-10 Dimethicone, Perfluorodimethylcyclohexane, Perfluoroperhydrophenanthrene.

Teflon: Avoid Teflon, non-stick cookware, PTFE-based nonstick pans, and kitchen utensils. Opt for cast iron instead. Stain-Resistance: Be wary of all fabrics labeled stain or water repellent. Choose furniture and carpets that aren't marketed as "stain-resistant" and don't apply finishing treatments to these items. Choose alternatives to clothing treated for water resistance, such as outerwear, shoes, luggage, or camping equipment. Wrappers: Cut back on fast food and greasy carryout food. These foods often come in PFAS-treated wrappers. Popcorn Bags: Pop popcorn the old-fashioned way, on the stovetop. Microwaveable popcorn bags are often coated with PFAS chemicals on the inside.

PFAS Research & Resources:

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