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How to Avoid ‘Forever Chemicals’ in Your Dinner (and Popcorn)

Health + Wellness
Cooking popcorn on the stove may help reduce PFAS exposure. zoranm / E+ / Getty Images

By George Citroner

A group of chemicals that can last indefinitely are still popping up in food containers, despite increasing evidence they can lead to significant health issues.


Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are a group of synthetic, fluorinated chemicals used worldwide since the 1940s, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Exposure to PFAS has been linked to increased risk of severe health issues, including cancer and thyroid issues.

Now new research finds that people who eat more fast food or often eat at restaurants tend to have higher levels of these chemicals in their bodies.

First Study to Find Food Packaging Is Source of Exposure

PFAS have been linked with numerous health effects, including cancer, thyroid disease, immune suppression, low birth weight and decreased fertility.

Because exposure is widespread in many populations, experts are becoming increasingly concerned.

"This is the first study to observe a link between different sources of food and PFAS exposures in the U.S. population," study co-author Laurel Schaider, Ph.D., and environmental chemist at the Silent Spring Institute told Healthline.

"Our findings show that decisions about what we eat and where we eat can have measurable changes in our PFAS exposure. Our findings also suggest that food packaging can be a source of PFAS exposure, and that using alternatives to PFAS in food packaging would reduce people's exposures to these chemicals," she continued.

Although manufacturers have removed this compound from many U.S. consumer goods, the chemical they replaced them with, called short-chain PFAS, is suspected to be just as toxic.

A recent study, published in the Chemical Engineering Journal, says short-chain PFAS compounds are "more widely detected, more persistent and mobile in aquatic systems, and thus may pose more risks on the human and ecosystem health" than the original compounds.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says 98 percent of Americans have trace amounts of PFAS in their bodies, which may take up to 9 years to metabolize.

Dining Out and Microwave Popcorn Are Sources of Exposure

The researchers looked at data from more than 10,000 participants in the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), the CDC program that tracks health and nutritional trends in the U.S.

Participants answered detailed questions about their diet, recording what they ate over the previous day, week, month and year. They also provided blood samples that were analyzed for five of the thousands of known PFAS chemicals.

"We conducted a comprehensive analysis of the association between PFAS exposure and consumption of food from fast food/pizza restaurants, other restaurants, and food eaten at home, as well as microwave popcorn, based on representative sampling of the U.S. population in 2003–2014," the study authors wrote.

Four of the PFAS chemicals present in the blood samples had been previously detected in microwave popcorn bags, the researchers noted.

According to the study, PFAS are widely found in nonstick, stain-resistant and waterproof products, including:

  • carpeting
  • cookware
  • outdoor clothing
  • food packaging

Food crops and livestock can also contain PFAS through exposure to contaminated soil and water, according the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

The findings suggest people who frequently ate out or consumed microwave popcorn had significantly higher levels of PFAS.

So, How Can You Avoid PFAS?

The CDC states that since "PFAS are at low levels in some foods and in the environment (air, water, soil, etc.) completely eliminating exposure is unlikely."

But this doesn't mean you can't take action to significantly reduce your risk for exposure.

One clear option is simply cooking and eating food at home.

Schaider and team wrote, "According to the 24-h recall model, every 100kcal [calories] of food per day eaten at home from non-restaurant sources was associated with decreased concentrations of all five PFASs."

You can also avoid stain or water-resistant clothing or products, and stop using nonstick (Teflon) cookware, which all contain PFAS.

Contamination of water is another concern that can be addressed by using an activated carbon or reverse osmosis filter for your home's drinking water.

A study published in January found women who flossed with Oral-B Glide tended to have higher levels of a type of PFAS called PFHxS (perfluorohexanesulfonic acid) in their bodies compared with those who didn't.

But there are other types of floss without PFAS. Worried consumers can also use an oral irrigator to clean their teeth.

Katie Boronow, staff scientist at Silent Spring, emphasized, "The good news is, based on our findings, consumers can choose flosses that don't contain PFAS."

The Bottom Line

PFAS are chemical compounds associated with cancer and other health risks. New research finds that people who frequently eat at restaurants or even eat microwave popcorn have elevated levels of this substance in their blood.

While the CDC says it can be difficult to completely eliminate the risk of exposure, there are things we can do to minimize it.

Avoiding PFAS-containing products and packaging, filtering home drinking water and eating out less can all help reduce exposure to this chemical compound.

Reposted with permission from our media associate Healthline.

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