PFAS 101: Everything You Need to Know About ‘Forever Chemicals’
Quick Key Facts:
- PFAS are a group of synthetic chemicals.
- There are thousands of different types of PFAS, and these chemicals can be found in products we use or interact with every day.
- Studies on PFAS have found links between higher exposures and impacts on human health.
- PFAS do not break down in the environment, thus earning the name “forever chemicals.”
- Studies suggest PFAS can take 8 to 9 years to leave the human body.
- PFAS have been found in human blood, soil, air, seafood and drinking water.
- Scientists are working to find ways to destroy PFAS, but existing options are still a challenge to scale up.
- Some governments and companies are enforcing bans on PFAS production moving forward.
What Are PFAS?
You may have heard them by many names: forever chemicals, PFAS, toxins … they all fall under the technical terms per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances. Called PFAS for short, these chemicals have earned the nickname forever chemicals because they are long-lasting, taking incredibly long times to break down. In the environment, like in soil or water, PFAS may never fully break down.
PFAS are ubiquitous, and humans come into contact with these substances every single day. In fact, PFAS have been found in human organs and blood, as well as in ecosystems and even remote environments.
So we know these forever chemicals are all around us, and they tend to live on endlessly, but what does that mean for human and planetary health?
Types of PFAS
There are thousands of types of PFAS, but there are a handful of types that are more present in our society and have been studied more extensively. Some of the most commonly studied PFAS include polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE), perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS), perfluorohexane sulfonate (PFHxS) and perfluorononanoic acid (PFNA).
Many people have heard the horrors of the brand Teflon, which is made of PTFE. It’s popular in many applications, from computer wiring to cookware, because it is a good electrical insulator and is non-stick. Virgin-grade PTFE is currently FDA-approved. PTFE may present mild to severe toxicity concerns, but more research is required to determine its impacts on human health.
Like PTFE, PFOA is widely found in non-stick cookware as well as stain-resistant products, food packaging and fire-fighting foam. But there are some serious concerns over this type of PFAS. According to the American Cancer Society, PFOA exposure may increase the risk of liver, testicle, breast and pancreas tumors.
The use of PFOS in commercial products started in the 1940s. This chemical is popular for stain-, grease- and water-resistant products. But exposure to PFOS may be linked to birth defects and increased cancer risks. Even still, it is often one of many PFAS detectable in the human body.
This chemical is another component of fire-fighting foam, food packaging, paint additives and other commercial and industrial products. Exposure may lead to developmental issues in fetuses as well as liver and thyroid effects.
Sometimes referred to as C9, this chemical is similar to PFOA and is common in non-stick and stain-repellent products. It may present similar risks as other common PFAS, including increased risk of cancer, hormone disruption, developmental issues, liver damage and effects on the immune system.
Where Are PFAS Found?
PFAS are found all over the world and are ever-present due to their inability to break down. PFAS are in the air, the rain, the soil and more, where they won’t break down. Even as some governments and companies work to ban PFAS or phase out PFAS production, these chemicals will remain ubiquitous in the world for years to come.
Because PFAS are common in cookware and food packaging, these chemicals may be found in our food and can accumulate in the human body. PFAS have been detected in human blood and even in human breast milk.
In 2022, an investigation found PFAS in beef from Michigan, and these forever chemicals may be contaminating cropland in the U.S. PFAS can accumulate in groundwater, so it is frequently found in drinking water.
Aside from their use in non-stick cookware and food packaging, PFAS also work in a variety of other applications. Their water-repellent qualities make them popular for outdoor gear, such as rain jackets and umbrellas, carpeting and other clothing. Forever chemicals can also be found in fire-fighting foam, paints, electronics, cleaning products and personal care products, like makeup.
How Are Humans Exposed to PFAS?
Humans can be exposed to PFAS in various ways, whether they are breathing in dust, cooking food in a non-stick pan or simply drinking tap water in their own home or at a restaurant. PFAS are found in both public drinking water supplies as well as private wells, and they can accumulate in groundwater and soil to contaminate crops and livestock.
PFAS may be present in fish that reside in PFAS-contaminated water sources, so humans may be exposed to PFAS by consuming seafood. These chemicals are also found in many manufacturing processes and consumer products, so humans can be exposed to forever chemicals through wearing water- or stain-repellent clothing, using electronic devices, painting a room, or breathing in household dust.
Forever chemicals are an active ingredient in fire-fighting foam, but they don’t have to be disclosed in the active ingredient list or on safety data sheets. Those who handle this substance, such as firefighters who those in the military, may have higher and prolonged exposure to PFAS.
Aside from people in these professions, pregnant people and children are also vulnerable to PFAS exposure. PFAS may increase risk of developmental issues in fetuses and ongoing health problems for pregnant people and children, such as preeclampsia, low birth weights and bone variations.
What Are the Risks of PFAS on Human Health?
Because there are so many potential sources of PFAS exposure, and these chemicals can build up without breaking down over time, experts are concerned about how they may impact human health. More research is needed to determine the extent of how these chemicals may affect our lives, but some studies already show concerning links between forever chemicals and human health.
PFAS may impact hormones and can act as endocrine-disrupting chemicals, according to Endocrine Society. Endocrine-disrupting chemicals can mimic hormones or block hormones, having the potential to cause issues with fertility. Additionally, PFAS may alter menstruation cycles and affect reproductive tissues in the body.
A 2021 study found a link between perfluorodecanoic acid (PFDA) and PFOS exposure and late-onset preeclampsia in pregnant people. Preeclampsia is a top cause of morbidity and mortality in pregnant people in the U.S.
Research from 2021 also noted a possible correlation between PFOA and PFOS exposure and lowered sperm quality and decreased sperm counts in different population studies, although additional PFAS and other factors could impact the results of such studies.
Developmental Impacts in Children
Fetuses may be exposed to PFAS through the umbilical cord. For infants, PFAS can be present in a parent’s breast milk or in water used to mix formula. Toddlers and children may come into contact with PFAS through the food they eat or toys they play with.
As children are still developing, experts suggest PFAS could have bigger impacts on their bodies compared to adults. A report from the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) found a link between chronic PFAS exposure in children and higher risks of lower birth weights, reduced vaccine response, higher cholesterol and dyslipidemias.
The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has listed PFOA as a possible carcinogen since 2017, but other PFAS may have links to elevated cancer risks. PFOA has been associated with higher risk of kidney cancer, particularly for people exposed to this type of PFAS in industrial settings or in a residential area near chemical plants that may contaminate local drinking water.
The National Cancer Institute – Division of Cancer Epidemiology and Genetics is also conducting additional studies to determine potential associations between PFAS exposure and testicular cancer, prostate cancer, ovarian cancer, endometrial cancer, non-Hodgkin lymphoma, thyroid cancer and childhood leukemia.
Effects on the Immune System
While more research is needed on this phenomenon, previous studies have found concerning associations between PFAS exposure and the immune system. In one study, children with higher PFAS exposure had worse antibody responses to vaccines, such as vaccines for tetanus and diphtheria.
Another study noted that increased PFAS exposure in fetuses lead to higher risks of children being hospitalized for infectious diseases.
Further, one study found PFOA and PFHxS exposure were associated with higher instances of diarrhea or gastric flu for children under 7, while exposure to PFOS, PFOA, PFHxS or perfluoroheptane sulfonic acid (PFHpS) for children 3 and under could be linked to increased rates of bronchitis or pneumonia.
Because the human body may experience worse antibody responses to vaccines with elevated PFAS exposure, this may impact response to COVID-19 vaccinations. Not only that, but PFAS exposure could lead to worse cases of COVID-19. A recent study also found that even lower PFAS exposures, particularly for perfluorobutanoic acid (PFBA), could lead to higher risk of severe COVID-19 infections.
Because PFAS can act as endocrine disruptors, they may impact thyroid functioning. Some PFAS types may accumulate in thyroid cells and disrupt thyroid hormones. The National Cancer Institute – Division of Cancer Epidemiology and Genetics is conducting studies to evaluate PFAS exposure and its links to childhood acute lymphoblastic leukemia, thyroid cancer and non-Hodgkin lymphoma.
How Forever Chemicals Impact the Environment
PFAS exposure can have many potential impacts on human health, but their inability to break down also means these chemicals can build up in the environment. They may have impacts on wildlife as they accumulate in water and soil. PFAS have been found in the organs of seabirds and are present in everything from plankton to alligators to whales.
Unfortunately, there is still a lot more research to be done to determine not just how PFAS impact human health but how these forever chemicals are affecting plants, fish, soils and other wildlife. Many scientists are already on the case, noting interesting phenomenon such as a lack of breeding in marine life near chemical plants or changes in hormones and lipids in animals with PFAS exposure.
How to Clean Up Forever Chemicals
Cleaning up all types of pollution on Earth is an ongoing conundrum for humanity. It can be especially tricky to remove PFAS from the environment, and the EPA is still investigating how to do so.
But there is promise. A study published in April 2022 found potential for breaking down one class of PFAS into mostly harmless components just by using lye. Activated carbon may also be useful in collecting PFAS from water, since typical wastewater management facilities cannot remove PFAS, although the chemicals still need to be destroyed to actually get rid of them.
Some methods of destruction that are being tested include supercritical water oxidation and the use of efficient plasma reactors. The challenge with such methods, though, is that they can be difficult to scale up for industrial, widespread use.
Minimizing PFAS Exposure
For consumers, it’s incredibly difficult to avoid PFAS. They are likely in the water you drink, the seafood you eat and even the air you breathe. Education is key to minimizing PFAS exposure. Those concerned can consult their local water utilities and government agencies for more information on PFAS levels in drinking water and waterways where they may source seafood. Consumers can also shop for products that are explicitly labeled as being free from PFAS.
It’s not just up to individuals to minimize the prevalence of PFAS, though, which is why some companies and governments are working to phase out the production and use of these chemicals.
Several businesses have vowed to phase out PFAS. VF Corporation, which owns major fashion and outdoor gear companies like The North Face, Vans and Timberland, announced in 2021 that it would mostly phase out PFAS from its products by 2025.
Home improvement stores, like Lowe’s and Home Depot, have also committed to stop selling products, particularly carpeting, that contain PFAS. These chemicals are popular for their stain-resistant and water-repelling qualities that can keep carpets clean, but they expose humans to these toxins inside their homes.
Most recently, 3M grabbed headlines when it announced it would stop using and manufacturing PFAS by the end of 2025. This decision came just months after the EPA designated two PFAS, PFOA and PFOS, as hazardous substances.
In August 2022, the EPA designated PFOA and PFOS as hazardous substances, although the agency did not outright ban the chemicals. The move made much lower health risk thresholds for these two specific types of PFAS found in drinking water.
Aside from restricting PFAS to various degrees, some states and individuals are suing for issues related to PFAS. As Bloomberg reported, over 6,400 PFAS-related lawsuits have been filed since 2005, and that number is only expected to keep growing as more information about PFAS comes out. In 2021, over 1,235 PFAS-related lawsuits were filed. States are suing polluters for millions in compensation for PFAS contamination in the environment, while experts expect to see increases in individuals suing for personal injury claims.
PFAS are forever… at least for now. These chemicals are just about everywhere, and it can be nearly impossible to avoid them. There are ways for consumers to minimize their exposure, whether by seeking out products that are explicitly free of PFAS (like PFOA-free cookware) or following fish consumption guidelines.
In the meantime, scientists are working vigilantly to learn more about how PFAS affect human health and the environment. With further research and testing, we can also expect to see existing methods for PFAS removal scale and new methods come to the table to help filter out and ultimately destroy PFAS. Until then, many governments and companies are banning or phasing out PFAS production to limit the amount of these chemicals in our world.