What Are PFAS Chemicals — and How Are They Harming the Planet?

PFAS are everywhere- and recently that’s causing concern. Along with being potentially harmful to people, they might be hurting animals and the environment.

Even though they’ve been around for decades, many people aren’t familiar with PFAS chemicals. If you’d like to learn about them – including what they are and the safety concerns surrounding them – this guide highlights a few key facts to know.

What Are PFAS?

Polyfluoroalkyl substances – referred to as PFAS – are a group of manmade chemicals commonly found in a range of products from fast food wrappers to fabrics and even the cosmetics that we put onto our skin. It isn’t just one chemical compound. Instead, it’s a collection of thousands of substances that all share certain traits.

From a manufacturing perspective, PFAS are an attractive addition to production processes and products because they’re typically heat, water, and oil resistant. As a result, they’re popular for water-repellent fabrics for clothing and tents or stain-resistant materials for carpeting or furnishings. You’ll also find PFAS in anything from firefighting foam to cosmetics.

They also have non-stick qualities, which make PFAS a seemingly smart addition to a range of products. For example, consumers typically want food wrappers and cookware to be non-stick, so many contain PFAS to make it happen.

Adam Nordell, co-owner of Songbird Farm in Unity, Maine, inside of one of their greenhouses where they overwintered spinach that is now unsellable due to PFA contamination on Tuesday, March 22, 2022. Nordell, who bought the farm seven years ago with his partner Joanna Davis, found out in late 2021 that their land and water is contaminated with incredibly high levels of Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS. After finding out about the contamination they shut down all of their farm operations and are moving off the land into an apartment in a nearby town. We dont really know what to do with all of it, Nordell said. (Photo by Brianna Soukup/For The Washington Post via Getty Images)

The Origins in Goods

PFAS chemicals are not anything new. The first substances in the category were actually created in the 1930s. By the 1950s, their use in manufacturing and consumer products was relatively widespread.

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However, one major push to create PFAS was actually tied to a tragedy. In 1967, a fire aboard the USS Forrestal killed 134 people. In response, scientists began looking for a quick way to extinguish similar blazes, ultimately developing aqueous film-forming foam (AFFF), which contains PFAS chemicals.

It wasn’t long after that period that people began having concerns about PFAS. During the 1970s, PFAS were found in the blood of workers who were exposed to the chemicals due to their jobs. In the 1990s, studies began finding them in blood samples in the general population.

While some PFAS have been pulled out of various markets – such as PFOA and PFOS in the United States – other countries don’t always follow suit. Similarly, while certain companies began abandoning PFAS chemicals as concerns grew – including 3M, which began phasing out their use in 2000 – not all manufacturers did the same.

When it comes to new PFAS chemicals, the goal is typically to capture similar benefits while reducing persistence in the environment. Whether that’ll eliminate any potential concerns is currently unclear.

Where Do You Find Them Now?

Today, PFAS chemicals are essentially everywhere. You can find them all across the United States and around the globe, and not just in products.

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Since PFAS are long-lasting, they don’t break down quickly. As a result, they’re increasingly present in the soil, water, and air. Additionally, PFAS are showing up in blood samples taken from the general population. They’re also present in animals, both in the wild and in animal products that become part of our food supply.

Generally, PFAS exposure can happen during daily life, mainly because these chemicals accumulate in the environment. Drinking water contamination – both in municipal supplies and private wells – isn’t uncommon and is one regular source of exposure. PFAS are also showing up in the food supply, particularly fish, which may live in contaminated water.

Eating foods packaged with PFAS-containing materials may also lead to exposure. Similarly, accidentally consuming certain dust or soil can do the same. In some cases, simple contact with products that contain PFAS – such as carpeting or similar performance fabrics – could create a risk of exposure.

How They Harm People, Animals, and the Environment

At this time, it’s difficult to fully assess how harmful PFAS chemicals are to people, animals, and the environment. Mainly, it’s because there are thousands of substances in the category, which creates research challenges.

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Some studies indicate that PFAS in the blood of people may increase certain health risks. When it comes to the side effects, there’s some indication that PFAS chemicals might lead to higher risks of kidney and testicular cancer. There might also be a higher prevalence of high cholesterol and raised uric acid levels, which could lead to gout or kidney stones.

For animals, liver and brain dysfunction could occur. Airway inflammation, reproductive issues, development issues, and other side effects have also been identified. In plants, studies indicate PFAS exposure may damage cell structures and organelle functions.

While some of the studies do involve PFAS levels far above what’s found in the environment or what’s encountered through typical exposure means, it does show the potential harm PFAS chemicals could cause. Additionally, since PFAS don’t break down quickly, it gives clues regarding what could occur if efforts aren’t made to address the issue, allowing PFAS building up to higher and riskier levels.

Groen’s Mieke Schauvliege pictured during a press conference on final report about the PFAS – PFOS pollution, Monday 28 March 2022 in Brussels. BELGA PHOTO HATIM KAGHAT (Photo by HATIM KAGHAT / BELGA MAG / Belga via AFP) (Photo by HATIM KAGHAT/BELGA MAG/AFP via Getty Images)

What’s Being Done to Address Contamination?

Currently, more research may be necessary to determine what actions need to be taken in response to rising levels of PFAS chemicals in the environment and higher degrees of exposure through products, water supplies, and food. However, some steps are already being taken.

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As mentioned above, the U.S. has largely moved away from certain PFAS chemicals. Additionally, some manufacturers are voluntarily following suit. There are also efforts to develop new PFAS chemicals that aren’t as potentially harmful, though that may take time.

When it comes to removing PFAS from water sources, some treatment plants are exploring options for filtering PFAS out of drinking water sources. Again, these aren’t fast solutions to implement, but strides are being made.

How to Avoid PFAS

In many cases, completely avoiding PFAS chemicals is incredibly challenging. However, there are steps you can take to reduce exposure.

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One of the biggest is to avoid non-stick cookware, as those generally contain PFAS. Cooking at home instead of turning to fast food or takeout and cooking from scratch instead of using convenience foods – which may have PFAS in packaging – could make a difference.

For textiles, avoid options with stain-resistant or water-resistant coatings. You can also research to find PFAS-free versions of products you need that often contain the chemicals, such as dental floss or cosmetics.

Finally, you could use a water filtration system to remove PFAS from the water in your home. Just keep in mind that effectiveness varies, so you’ll want to research options that performed best in this arena to ensure that you choose the best solution for your household.

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