In recent years, concerns have arisen over a large group of man-made chemicals known as per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), often referred to as “forever chemicals” due to their persistence in the environment. Research shows these chemicals can be dangerous and exposure to certain PFAS may cause a wide range of health problems including hormone disruption, liver and kidney damage, immune system dysfunction, decreased fertility and developmental abnormalities in infants and children and an increased risk of certain cancers. However, the extent of the health effects and their specific mechanisms are still areas of ongoing scientific research.

First produced in the 1940s and known for their strong carbon-fluorine bonds, which makes them highly stable and resistant to degradation in the environment, this family of over 9,000 different chemical compounds are widely used in various industrial, commercial and consumer products for their water- and oil-resistant properties. They are part of our everyday products and play a prominent role in modern society: from food packaging, cosmetics, textile treatments (fabrics e.g. furniture, clothing), medical devices, membranes in fuel cells, ski wax, and more. 

The concerns with PFAS are fivefold: 

  1. They are persistence in the environment, meaning they do not break down easily and can remain in soil, water, and air for extended periods (aka “forever chemicals”). 
  2. Because of their persistence in the environment, it increases the likelihood of long-term exposure and contamination of our ecosystems and our bodies. PFAS have the potential to bioaccumulate in living organisms, meaning they can build up in the tissues of plants, animals, and humans over time. This bioaccumulation can lead to higher concentrations of PFAS, resulting in adverse health effects. 
    A 2003-2004 survey found PFAS in the bloodstream of 97 per cent of Americans, including newborns.
  3. They contaminate our water sources. PFAS can migrate into soil, surface water and groundwater and enter drinking water through industrial discharges, usage of certain fire-fighting foams, leaching from landfills, and discharge from sewage treatment plants. 
    study in 2020 found that up to 200 million Americans are exposed to PFAS through their tap water. 
  4. A wide range of consumer products containing PFAS, including personal products, non-stick cookware, food packaging etc., making it difficult to not only reduce exposure but attempt to eliminate it. 
  5. Their widespread environmental distribution poses global health issues and challenges with containment and remediation. For example, PFAS has been detected as far out as remote regions such as the Arctic seawater.

Human exposures are then classified into three main areas: 

  1. General, which encompasses suspended dust, drinking water, personal care product use, and food consumption. 
  2. Occupational, encompassing manufacturing practices and duties. 
  3. Prenatal, where contaminated umbilical cord blood crosses to the placenta during pregnancy.    

Luckily, because of increasing concerns over PFAS, regulatory bodies and governments, such as in the United States and Canada among others, have taken action to regulate and phase out certain PFAS compounds. Efforts are being made to reduce the use of PFAS in various products and to set guidelines and standards for acceptable levels of PFAS in drinking water and the environment (note the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has stated there is no safe level for at least two types of toxic PFAS). 

While it may be challenging to completely eliminate exposure to PFAS, there are steps you can take to reduce your risk:

  • Be Mindful of Cookware: Opt for stainless steel, cast iron, or ceramic cookware as alternatives to non-stick pans. Avoid using scratched or damaged non-stick cookware.
  • Read Product Labels: Check for labels indicating that products are PFAS-free or have undergone third-party testing for the absence of these chemicals. 
  • Filter Your Drinking Water: Consider installing a water filtration system certified to remove PFAS, such as reverse osmosis or activated carbon filters. This can reduce the concentration of PFAS in your tap water.
  • Choose Safer Personal Care Products: Check ingredient labels for PFAS-related compounds, such as those with “fluoro,” “per-fluoro” or “poly-fluoro” prefixes. Opt for personal care products that are free from these substances.
  • Avoid Stain-Resistant Treatments: When purchasing furniture or carpets, choose products that are free from stain-resistant treatments containing PFAS.
  • Avoid Packaging of Foods Containing Grease-Repellent Coatings: This includes certain types of microwavable popcorn bags, food boxes, oil-resistant fast-food wrappers, etc. 

While it is important to be informed about PFAS and take necessary precautions, it is equally vital to maintain perspective. Research on the health effects associated with PFAS exposure is ongoing. It is crucial to remember that individual exposure levels and durations, as well as other factors, contribute to the overall risk of adverse effects. By taking proactive measures to minimize exposures and following guidelines and updated guidance provided by regulatory agencies, everyone can mitigate potential risks associated with PFAS.

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