Dangerous “forever chemicals” called PFAS contaminate drinking water, food and air.
It may be impossible to avoid PFAS entirely, but there are a few simple ways to reduce your exposure.
Eating at home, ditching pans and unnecessary blankets and filtering the water can help.
Dangerous, long-lasting “forever chemicals” are all over the news lately, and they’re also all over our everyday environments.
Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, are a class of thousands of man-made substances that are common in everyday objects, but research is making it increasingly clear that they can be harmful to human health. Peer-reviewed studies have linked them to some cancers, reduced fertility, thyroid disease and developmental delays.
That’s bad news since PFAS last for decades without breaking down, earning them the nickname “forever chemicals.” Scientists have found them in drinking water and household dust across the planet, in the oceans, at both poles, and drifting through the atmosphere.
In a paper published last month, leading researchers at Stockholm University concluded that all rainwater on the planet, and probably all soil, is contaminated with unsafe levels of PFAS. Ian Cousins, who spearheaded that research, fears that it is impossible to avoid the chemicals.
“I don’t bother,” Cousins told Insider, adding, “It’s almost impossible to pull off. You can’t really do it.”
Although you cannot completely avoid PFAS, there are a few simple ways to reduce your exposure in everyday life.
Eat at home, with minimal fat-resistant packaging
PFAS were developed in the 1940s to resist heat, grease, stains and water. This means that they have ended up in a lot of food packaging. That includes pizza boxes, microwave popcorn bags, some wrappers and greaseproof paper.
Restaurants and fast food chains can use such packaging more than grocery stores. A 2019 study found that people had lower blood PFAS levels after eating at home, and higher levels after eating fast food or at restaurants.
Still, Cousins said, “All food is contaminated with PFAS.”
Be careful with nonstick pans
The coating used in nonstick cookware usually contains PFAS, and they can easily leach into your food at high heat and when the coating is scratched.
The Washington Department of Ecology advises against heating nonstick cookware above 400 degrees Fahrenheit, and recommends throwing it out when the nonstick coating scratches. Cast iron pans are a safe alternative.
Cousins, however, said “Scratching pans is not a problem for exposure.” He added that there are low levels of harmful PFAS in Teflon coatings, but the worst of it was phased out in the early 2000s.
Ditch the stain-resistant carpet and fabrics
Water-resistant and stain-resistant treatments, common on household items such as carpets and clothing such as raincoats, also contain PFAS. Scientists don’t think the chemicals can be easily absorbed into your body through your skin, but these substances emit fibers that can travel through the house as dust, and eventually be swallowed or inhaled.
Vacuum, dust and open the windows
PFAS accumulate in dust, which hangs in the air and allows people to breathe the chemicals into their lungs. By vacuuming and vacuuming regularly, along with opening windows to allow airflow and ventilation, you can keep dust levels low in your home and reduce the amount of PFAS you ingest.
Test and perhaps treat your drinking water
You can test your water for PFAS through a state-certified laboratory. If the water exceeds the guidelines, you may want to consider doing something about it, especially if you have children.
Even at very low levels, exposure to two of the most common PFAS – called PFOA and PFOS – has been linked to reduced vaccine response in children. This research prompted the US Environmental Protection Agency to revise its drinking water guidelines, reducing the safe levels of these substances by a factor of 17,000. In August, the agency released a proposal to classify these two PFAS as hazardous substances.
A few types of water filters can reduce PFAS levels, although they may not completely remove the chemicals from the water. State environmental departments recommend filtration systems that use reverse osmosis for tap water. They also recommend filter systems that use granular activated carbon (also called charcoal), which can be installed on faucets throughout the house or used in a tabletop pitcher, but a 2020 study found mixed results from these systems.
If you get your drinking water from a well, the EPA recommends testing it regularly and contacting your state environmental or health agency for certified labs and safety standards.
Check before you buy cosmetics
Last year, a group of researchers published the results of testing 231 cosmetic products in the US and Canada for PFAS. More than half of the products contained indicators for the chemicals.
The Environmental Working Group (EWG) maintains a public, searchable database of cosmetics and personal care products, which highlights ingredients with potential risks to human health, such as PFASs such as Teflon. They also maintain a map where you can check if you live near a PFAS contamination site.
The Green Science Policy Institute also maintains a list of PFAS-free products, including a guide to cosmetics.
Ultimately, Cousins said, people don’t need to be “super concerned” about low-level exposure, since there isn’t strong evidence of major health effects in the population. In the US, manufacturers have been phasing out the most harmful known PFAS – PFOA and PFOS – since the early 2000s. Over the past 20 years, levels of these substances in human blood have declined, according to the CDC.
Still, reducing PFAS use in consumer products can prevent the problem from getting worse in the future.
“I think we should use this to get a little angry about what’s happened and try to make changes so we don’t keep doing this,” Cousins said. “Maybe we have to use [PFAS] in some cases, but only when they are absolutely essential. And then we should also try to innovate, try to replace them in the longer term.”
This story has been updated to reflect disagreements in the scientific community about the extent of PFAS exposure from Teflon. It was originally published on September 17, 2022.
Read the original article on Business Insider