What Are PFAS & Why Are They So Dangerous?
You might have heard a lot of PFAS lately, especially in regards to the water contamination crisis in Michigan, but rest assured that's not the only state in the U.S. that is contaminated with toxic ’forever chemicals’ in their drinking water. Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are linked to a multitude of health problems, such as cancer, liver damage, decreased fertility, increased risk of asthma, thyroid disease and learning delays in children.
According to research by the PFAS Project at Northeastern University in Boston and the advocacy organization Environmental Working Group (EWG), PFAS have been detected in the drinking water of more than 1,400 communities in 49 states. The EWG even estimates that 110 million people possibly have tap water contaminated with the chemicals. Further the estimation is that 7.5 million Californians have toxic nonpolymeric PFAS in their drinking water at a level of at least 1 part per trillion - 1 ppt. A lot of this contamination is linked to the use of firefighting foam.
On Sept. 29 Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a legislation halting the sale, manufacture, and use of firefighting foam that contains per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) as of 2022. Colorado, New Hampshire, New York, and Washington have enacted similar bans but California is the largest US market to do so.
On Sept. 30 Gov. Newsom also signed a legislation that bans the use of 24 chemicals in cosmetics starting in 2025. Many of the substances are prohibited from cosmetics in the European Union and the California legislature says it aims to continue banning cosmetic ingredients that the EU proscribes.The substances include formaldehyde, several PFAS, mercury, two parabens, and two phthalates.
U.S. products use more than 1,000 unhealthy ingredients that are banned in Europe. The EU is way more strict when it comes to product safety. If there's any research showing health concerns, they are quick to ban, whereas the FDA only bans chemicals after staggering evidence of proof of toxicity, and sometimes not even then it seems.
Thank you Gov. Newsom! Since living a sustainable life to the best of my abilities and building this sustainable living blog, I have been seriously considering moving back to Europe because it's not worth to risk my health to such a high degree to chemical toxicity in our soil, hence food, water and air. I intend to live a long and healthy life, but there is only so much you can do, and trust me I do all of it. Our current administration has rolled back numerous environmental protection laws in favor for corporate giants that expose us to higher levels of toxicity again.
What exactly are PFAS aka ‘Forever Chemicals’?
Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are a class of synthetic chemicals that contain fluorine atoms. They owe their properties to the carbon-fluorine bond, which is one of the shortest and strongest known. Those chemical bonds that hold the compounds together don’t break down easily in the environment and last a very long time, therefore earning them the nickname 'forever chemicals'.
For decades chemical companies have manufactured PFAS for use in consumer products and as manufacturing aids. The characteristics of these compounds offer heat, stain, and water resistance. At least 4,000 PFAS are or have been on the market according to the US government.
The two best-known PFAS, perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS), aren’t made deliberately in the US anymore, though they are the most widespread pollutants of concern.
Substitutes have been developed for these two compounds, but many of these alternatives are seen as equally environmentally persistent. Research suggests that those replacements are linked to similar adverse human health effects.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulates US drinking water and has been investigating PFAS since the late 1990s. Despite the 20-plus years of investigation and information gathering, the agency has failed to enforce a nationwide standard on PFAS, even as more about the risks of the chemical group has become known and data has been accumulated by scientists and environmental organizations, that a far lower concentration of PFAS in water–1 ppt–is a more appropriate limit.
If you want to read more about 'Why dangerous forever chemicals are allowed in the US' click here.
How to avoid PFAS?
PFAS compounds are omnipresent. They are used in a variety of products, from nonstick cookware to food-delivery boxes to stain-resistant clothing. But as already discussed, one of the most troubling sources of PFAS exposure is drinking water that has been contaminated by runoffs from factories and other facilities.
That lack of a national standard on PFAS has consequences not just for tap water but also for bottled. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) oversees and regulates contaminants in bottled water after the EPA sets a limit for tap water. Consumer Report has recently tested 47 bottled water and found PFAS in 43 of them, especially in carbonated ones.
Here are a few guidelines on how to limit your PFAS exposure.
Food & Beverage:
Ditch PTFE-based kitchen utensils and nonstick pans. Use stainless steel or cast iron instead.
Cut back on, or best avoid, fast food and greasy carryout food. They often come in PFAS-treated wrappers.
Make Pop popcorn on the stovetop. Microwaveable popcorn bags are often coated with PFAS chemicals on the inside.
Avoid these bottled waters.
Clothing and Home Decor:
Be watchful of all fabrics labeled 'stain- or waterrepellent'. Pay attention and research, especially when buying outdoor gear, and pick clothing that doesn’t carry Gore-Tex or Teflon tags.
Look for products that haven’t been pre-treated and ditch optional stain-repellent treatment on furniture and new carpets. Many of these coatings are made with PFAS chemicals.
Use products without “PTFE” or “FLUORO” ingredients, especially in dental floss, e.g. Oral-B Glide floss, which is made by Goretex, is made with PTFE, so stay away. (Devastating as this used to be my favorite floss and I used it for years every single day...I don't even want to think about that.... 🤦🏼♀️)
For ingredient safety in personal care products you can also check out the EWG’s Skin Deep® database.
Another resource for health effects information in all kinds of consumer goods from skin care to household cleaners is the Consumer Product Information Database (CPID).
We have learned that PFAS chemicals pollute water, are persistent in the environment, remain in the body for years and cause an array of health problems.
This is once again a reminder that big corporations, governments and agencies don't always have your best interest in mind, but rather their own. After all PFAS are a multi-billion dollar business.
We are finally seeing some movement with action taken to ban PFAS substances in firefighting foams, as they seep into our soils and drinking water. I am also very happy to see that California is the first state in the US to ban 24 ingredients from personal care products we use every day with the 'Toxic-Free Cosmetics Act'.
Business and sustainability need to go hand in hand because, simply put, if it's bad for the environment, it's bad for humans. Our survival depends on healthy and functioning ecosystems. Period.
"When the last tree has been cut down, the last fish caught, the last river poisoned, only then will we realise that one cannot eat money." - Native American Proverb