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USA: What Are PFAS + What Products Contain Toxic Levels?

Updated: Jun 11

Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are synthetic chemicals that have become ubiquitous in modern life due to their water and grease-resistant properties. Often referred to as "forever chemicals" because they can take thousands of years to degrade, PFAS are linked to numerous health issues, including cancer and immune system dysfunction. According to the Environmental Working Group (EWG), more than 200 million Americans could be exposed to unsafe levels of PFAS in their drinking water.

What Are PFAS?

PFAS are a group of synthetic chemicals used in various industries. They are commonly found in products like water-repellent clothing, nonstick cookware, firefighting foams, and fast-food packaging. The National Toxicology Program (NTP) has linked high levels of PFAS exposure to health problems such as cancer and immune system dysfunction. Most research focuses on four specific PFAS: perfluorooctane sulfonic acid (PFOS), perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), perfluorononanoic acid (PFNA), and perfluorohexane sulfonic acid (PFHxS). While PFOA and PFOS are now prohibited in the U.S., new PFAS have been created to replace them.

PFAS are found in many products we use daily. Here's a closer look at some common items that may contain these chemicals:

1. Nonstick Cookware: PFAS are used to create nonstick coatings on pans. When these coatings are scratched or heated to high temperatures, PFAS can leach into your food. To avoid this, use alternatives like cast iron, stainless steel, or ceramic-coated cookware.


2. Water-Resistant Fabrics: PFAS are used in products like raincoats, outdoor gear, and upholstery. A 2022 Toxic-Free Future study found that 72% of products marketed as stain- or water-resistant contained PFAS. Brands like Deuter and Didriksons now offer PFAS-free options.


3. Cosmetics: PFAS are often used in cosmetics for their water-resistant properties. A 2021 study tested 231 cosmetic products and found high levels of PFAS in foundations, concealers, lip products, and other face products. Many of these products did not list PFAS on their labels.


4. Fast-Food Packaging: PFAS are added to fast-food packaging to make it grease-resistant. These chemicals can contaminate your food and are ingested when you eat. Cooking more at home can help reduce your exposure to PFAS.


5. Firefighting Foams: PFAS in firefighting foams are significant sources of environmental contamination. When these foams are used, PFAS can seep into groundwater and drinking water sources. Some states, like California, have started phasing out PFAS in firefighting foams.

6. Cleaning Products: PFAS can be present in cleaners and waxes. An Environmental Pollution study found high levels of PFAS in childcare facilities that used certain cleaning products. To avoid contamination, choose Green Seal verified cleaning products.

Health and Environmental Risks

PFAS contamination is not just a human health issue; it also affects wildlife and ecosystems. Research has shown that PFAS can cause various health problems in humans, including cancer, decreased fertility, high cholesterol, hormone suppression, thyroid disease, liver damage, and ulcerative colitis. Wildlife is also at risk, showing similar health impacts due to PFAS exposure.

For instance, a study published in the journal Frontiers in Toxicology tested PFAS levels in alligators from the Cape Fear River in North Carolina, an area known for high pollution from a nearby chemical plant. The study found significantly higher levels of PFAS in the blood of Cape Fear alligators compared to those from a less polluted area. These alligators also showed signs of immune system dysfunction and higher rates of unhealed or infected lesions, indicating the severe impact of PFAS on wildlife.

Reducing Your Exposure to PFAS

While it's challenging to avoid PFAS entirely, you can take steps to minimize your exposure:

1. Test and Filter Water: Drinking water is a major source of PFAS exposure. Check the EWG’s contamination map to see if your local water supply is affected. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recommends contacting your local water utility for information or using a state-certified laboratory to test your water. If your water is contaminated, invest in a high-quality filter with activated carbon or reverse osmosis.

2. Check Product Labels: Avoid products that contain ingredients with “perfluoro” or “fluoro” in their name. Look for PFAS-free labels on items like nonstick cookware, water-resistant clothing, and cosmetics.

3. Follow Food Safety Guidelines: To reduce your risk, look for PFAS-free microwave popcorn bags, transfer takeout food to your own containers quickly, or cook more meals at home using fresh ingredients.

4. Support PFAS-Free Alternatives: Choose products from brands that offer PFAS-free versions. This not only protects your health but also sends a message to manufacturers about the demand for safer products.

PFAS and the Military

Military sites are particularly prone to PFAS contamination due to the use of firefighting foams. A 2022 analysis found that at least 116 military sites had potentially unsafe levels of PFAS in drinking water, affecting over 600,000 military service members and their families. If you worked at a base like Camp Lejeune between 1953 and 1987, you might qualify to file a lawsuit for compensation due to the high levels of toxic drinking water.

Final Thoughts

PFAS are pervasive and persistent chemicals that pose significant health and environmental risks. By staying informed and making conscious choices about the products you use, you can help protect yourself and your family from these harmful substances. Advocacy for stricter regulations and safer alternatives is also crucial in the fight against PFAS contamination.


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