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What are PFAS? These toxic 'forever chemicals' are found in everyday products

Scientists have discovered more than 9,000 of these chemicals used in hundreds of everyday products.

PFAS; toxic chemicals found in everyday products

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PFAS, perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, are a group of highly toxic chemicals found in everyday products we use — from food packing to toiletries and cosmetics, nonstick cookware, and clothing.

PFAS, which include PFOS and PFOA, are commonly referred to as "forever chemicals" because, as the World Economic Forum says, they "usually take hundreds or thousands of years to break down," and they can build up in our bodies.

Exposure is linked to cancer, decreases in fertility, and increases risks to asthma and thyroid disease.

Why are PFAS everywhere?

When companies use PFAS in their production process, these chemicals leach into our water, soil, and air

People become exposed to PFAS by consuming contaminated food and water, using products made with PFAS, and breathing in air that contains PFAS. In the Center for Disease Control's National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) PFAS was found in the blood of 97% of Americans.

Exposure to PFAS is a growing concern because their use is so widespread. 

Scientists have discovered more than 9,000 of these chemicals used in hundreds of everyday products, and we don't know how long they remain in the environment. You can find a list of products and uses in this 2020 study.

The chemical company DuPont unleashed these dangerous chemicals onto the world in 1946 when it created Teflon, which coats nonstick cookware. The harms of PFOA (a type of PFAS) came to our attention when a lawsuit was filed against DuPont for contaminated drinking water in West Virginia.

Internal documents revealed that DuPont was aware of the chemicals' toxicity as early as 1961.

By 1984, DuPont knew that the chemical was in the water supply and released into the air via dust from the chimneys at its Teflon factory, but they didn't tell its workers and the public. 

Workers, local families, and communities that were downriver from the factory filed multiple lawsuits from 1998, as they and their cattle had developed illnesses linked to PFOA

A case surrounding the loss of cattle was settled in 2001, but the information from this case sparked a class action lawsuit for 80,000 people who lived in districts with contaminated water. This case was settled for $235 million in 2005.

Health effects

Studies have linked PFAS chemicals to tumors and cancers of the liver and kidney, reproductive issues (e.g. ovarian cancer), low birth weights, weakened immune systems in children, increased cholesterol, and weight gain. More research into the health effects is being done by government health agencies.

In 2006, the EPA cooperated with the eight leading manufacturers in the PFAS industry to phase out the chemicals in the United States. The EPA set the goal and companies committed to a 95% reduction by 2010. But as a global economy, PFAS still reach us through products produced internationally.

The EPA is taking action to try and combat widespread PFAS chemicals. 

The EPA has continually monitored and collected data on the manufacture and use of PFAS, has instituted standards for drinking water, set up a PFAS council, and rolled out a national PFAS testing strategy.

How to escape these chemicals

Because PFAS are so widespread, it's unrealistic to expect one to completely avoid them. But the best approach to reduce exposure is by avoiding products containing them. 

Research suggests that people who cook at home have less exposure to PFAS, as food packaging from takeaway containers contain these chemicals.

When going on a takeout run, transfer your food out of the packaging as soon as possible and avoid reheating food in takeaway packaging to limit transfer of PFAS to your food. PFAS are found in higher amounts in people who eat microwave popcorn, so pop your own.

Avoid nonstick cookware and limit purchasing stain or water-resistant clothing. Prioritize brands that are PFAS-free: This list contains such brands in textiles, carpets and rugs, home maintenance products, food-ware, furniture, cosmetics and personal care products, baby products, shoes, outdoor gear, and other apparel.

The good news is more major brands like Amazon, McDonald's and Lowe's are adopting PFAS-reduction policies. 

There are currently 32 retail chains with more than 150,000 stores and a combined $654 billion in sales that have committed to phasing out or greatly reducing PFAS in their products in the next few years.

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