What Are PFAS Chemicals, and Should I Be Freaking Out About Them?

Due to rising concerns about PFAS used in consumer products, many companies are now manufacturing items that are labeled as products that do not contain certain types of PFAS. Image credit: Ellen Knickmeyer/AP

The PFAS family makes up about 4,700 types of chemicals, all of which are manmade. A characteristic shared by all PFAS chemicals is their carbon-fluorine bonds. A bond between these atoms is one of the strongest in nature, which is why these compounds have been labeled ‘forever chemicals,’ because they do not easily degrade over time.

Invented during the 1930s, PFAS quickly became highly utilized for their ability to repel oil, water and grease. This made them ideal for use in everyday items like food packaging, waterproof clothing, and nonstick cookware. However, even with reduction of PFAS in manufacturing over time, they are still found throughout the environment. Recent advances in research related to these chemicals reveals links between exposure to PFAS and adverse health effects.

People gain exposure to PFAS through consumption of food packed in materials that contain PFAS as well as by drinking water contaminated with the chemicals. Small amounts can even be ingested when inhaling contaminated air or dust. Studies have linked this exposure to health issues including liver and kidney damage, high cholesterol, and adverse effects on fertility. Due to the prevalence of these chemicals and their persistence in the environment, an estimated 98% of Americans have detectable levels of PFAS in their bloodstreams.

According to STEEP researcher Elsie Sunderland, PFAS affect, “every major organ in the human body.” Therefore, it is important for the public to know how they are exposed to these contaminants and how to reduce exposure. Currently there are no federal drinking water limits on PFAS. In February of 2019 the EPA announced goals to regulate two types of PFAS by the end of the year, however advancements with these plans are still underway. Researchers also continue to study these chemicals and how to control them.

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