Although concerns about “forever chemicals” known as PFAs have been mounting for several decades, they are still being produced. This means that they—and their potential for severe adverse health effects in humans and animals—are still increasing in the environment.
While governments still work to contain the use of PFAS, the public has many steps it can take to protect themselves from these ubiquitous elements in consumer products—and water.
Seventy Years of Household Use
PFAS (per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances) were introduced to American society in 1946, when DuPont invented a non-stick coating on cookware called Teflon (PFOA, or perfluorooctanic acid).
3M subsequently took over the manufacturing of Teflon, and thousands of other non-stick, stain-repellent, and waterproof compounds were produced from it. These PFAS are still used in many consumer products—there are now over 4,700 chemicals and more than 12,000 individual compounds in the PFAS family.
Links to Health Problems
In 1950, studies conducted by 3M found that PFAS can contaminate human blood. Animal experiments conducted in the 1960s demonstrated the wider damage caused by PFAS to animal and human health, and in the 1980s, the ability of PFAS to cause cancer became apparent.
The initial group of PFAS were known as “long chain chemicals,” because they had chains of six to eight carbon atoms. This has been reformulated as “short chain chemicals” (using six carbon atoms).
However, DuPont has admitted that one short-chain chemical, GenX, has been found to cause tumors in laboratory animals. Furthermore, a study conducted in 2019 by Auburn University, Alabama, indicates that short-chain chemicals may be even worse than the long-chain chemicals they replaced, thus supporting increasing concern among scientists that all PFAS are hazardous.
Very small amounts of PFAS can adversely impact human health, causing diseases such as cancer and damaging the human reproductive and immune systems, among other negative impacts.
PFAS can adversely impact human health, causing diseases such as cancer and damaging the human reproductive and immune systems, among other negative impacts.
Testicular, kidney, liver, and pancreatic cancer
Weakened childhood immunity
Low birth weight
Weight gain in children and dieting adults
PFAS and Water
PFAS can be released into the environment at every stage of a product’s lifecycle, particularly during chemical manufacture or when chemicals are applied to the final product.
They can leave the product during its use—for example, entering food products, being washed away by the rain from the oil on a bicycle chain, or scraped off skis and snowboards as the PFAS wax detaches from surfaces. From these sources, they can leech into wastewater, be discharged into streams, enter groundwater, and from there enter water used for drinking and washing, as well as water used in agriculture.
This means that widespread production of PFAS over several decades has resulted in the contamination of water sources and soil all over the world, including in remote regions such as the Arctic. They have entered the blood stream of humans and animals, where they can remain indefinitely.
In 2019, for example, samples collected from aquifer systems in the US showed that at least fourteen PFAS were present in groundwater, including those used to supply public drinking water.
It is known that the drinking water systems of at least 49 states, affecting 19 million people, are contaminated by PFAS, following the tracing of PFAS by the Social Science Environmental Health Research Institute (SSEHRI) at Northeastern University, Massachusetts.
According to the environmental website EWG, nearly all American citizens, including newborn babies, now have PFAS in their blood, while more than 200 million people across the US could be ingesting PFAS through drinking water, with 18 million to 80 million people being exposed to concentrations greater than 10 ng/L in tap water.
[N]early all American citizens, including newborn babies, now have PFAS in their blood, while more than 200 million people across the US could be ingesting PFAS through drinking water, with 18 million to 80 million people being exposed to concentrations greater than 10 ng/L in tap water.
Where Else Are PFAS?
Drinking water is not the only route of exposure to PFAS, since these chemicals are also present in a wide variety of consumer products, including certain types of cookware, due to their grease-resistant qualities. Products include:
Carpets treated with fabric treatments, such as Scotchgard and Stainmaster
Clothes and fabrics labeled as stain or water repellent
Personal care products and cosmetics
Paper and cardboard wrapping and boxes used for fast foods and bakery products
Even as recently as 2021, a study found that PFAS are in disposable food packaging used by fast-food chains, takeout, and supermarkets all across the world. PFAS are also used in special foams used for fire-fighting.
How to Reduce Exposure to PFAS
From 1998, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) began to apply pressure to have Teflon, along with 3M’s Scotchgard product (PFOS), phased out from domestic products in the US. However, PFAS are still permitted in products imported into the country, and the EPA has been accused of not acting quickly enough, particularly because it still hasn’t set a legal limit for PFAS in tap water. However, as part of the PFAS Strategic Roadmap from 2021 to 2024, the EPA recently announced a national standard to address PFAS in drinking water.
In January 2023, 3M said it would “exit” PFAS manufacturing and work to phase out PFAS use in its product portfolio by the end of 2025.
Water companies are in the process to remove PFAS from their water supplies through various measures, including activated carbon treatment, ion exchange treatment, and high-pressure membranes such as nanofiltration and reverse osmosis.
Governments are taking steps to limit or eliminate toxic chemicals production, following the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants, an international treaty. There is also the EU chemical regulation REACH, and five EU Member States that are currently working on an EU-wide restriction for all PFAS which is scheduled to come into force in 2025.
Individuals can take steps to reduce their exposure to PFAS by avoiding non-stick cookware, cooking meals at home, eating at restaurants rather than having fast-food takeout, checking labels on products, and avoiding any cosmetics containing the words “fluoro” or PTFE in their ingredient list.
This also includes bottled water in the US. Researchers from Johns Hopkins University detected PFAS in thirty-nine out of 101 products tested across sixty-six brands, while, according to a 2020 article in Consumer Reports, many popular brands of bottled water have high levels of PFAS.
Last year, various civil organizations in Europe published the Ban PFAS Manifesto, calling for the EU to ban PFAS in products by 2025 and for all other uses by 2030. In the UK, Chem Trust is also inviting individuals to lobby their MPs and contact food retailers and food packaging companies, asking them to stop using PFAS.
In order to reduce exposure to PFAS through water, there are several actions people can take. One of the most important perhaps is to contact the local water company and find out what they are doing to reduce or eliminate PFAS from their water supplies and whether they share information on this with the public. One can also contact environmental protection agencies or environmental health departments to see if they are also taking action. At home, various brands of water filters can be used to remove PFAS from tap water.
*Robin Whitlock is an England-based freelance journalist specializing in environmental issues, climate change, and renewable energy, with a variety of other professional interests including green transportation.