Hazardous 'forever chemicals' are in our water, food, and air. Here are 6 simple ways to reduce exposure at home.
- Hazardous "forever chemicals" called PFAS are contaminating drinking water, food, and air.
- It may be impossible to completely avoid PFAS, but there are a few simple ways to reduce your exposure.
Hazardous, long-lasting "forever chemicals" are all over the news lately, and they're all over our day-to-day environments too.
Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, is a class of thousands of man-made substances that are common in everyday objects, but research is making it increasingly clear that they may be harmful to human health. Peer-reviewed studies have linked them to some cancers, decreased fertility, thyroid disease, and developmental delays.
That's bad news since PFAS last for decades without breaking down, earning them the "forever chemicals" nickname. Researchers 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 the University of Stockholm concluded that all the planet's rainwater, and probably all of its soil, are contaminated with unsafe levels of PFAS. Ian Cousins, who spearheaded that research, fears it's impossible to avoid the chemicals.
"I don't bother," Cousins told Insider, adding, "It's almost mission impossible. You can't really do it."
Even if you can't completely dodge PFAS, there are a few easy ways to reduce exposure in your daily life.
Eat at home, with minimal grease-resistant packaging
PFAS were developed in the 1940s to resist heat, grease, stains, and water. That means they've ended up in a lot of food packaging. That includes pizza boxes, microwave popcorn bags, some wrappers, and grease-resistant paper.
Restaurants and fast-food chains may use such packaging more than grocery stores do. A 2019 study found that people had lower PFAS levels in their blood 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 once the coating gets scratched.
The Washington Department of Ecology advises against heating nonstick cookware above 400 degrees Fahrenheit, and recommends throwing it out once the nonstick coating scratches. Cast-iron pans are a safe alternative.
Cousins, however, said "Scratching on pans is not a problem for exposure." He added that there are low levels of harmful PFAS in Teflon coating, but the worst of it was phased out in the early 2000s.
Ditch your stain-resistant carpet and fabrics
Water-resistant and stain-resistant treatments, common on household items like carpets and clothing like raincoats, also contain PFAS. Researchers don't think the chemicals can easily absorb into your body through your skin, but those fabrics shed fibers that can travel through the house as dust, eventually getting ingested or inhaled.
Vacuum, dust, and open the windows
PFAS accumulate in dust, which lingers in the air and allows humans to breathe the chemicals into their lungs. By dusting and vacuuming regularly, along with opening windows to allow for airflow and ventilation, you can keep dust levels low in your home and reduce the amount of PFAS you swallow.
Test and maybe treat your drinking water
You can test your water for PFAS through a laboratory certified by your state. If the water exceeds 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 decreased vaccine response in children. That research prompted the US Environmental Protection Agency to revise its drinking-water guidelines, decreasing the safe levels of those substances by a factor of 17,000. In August, the agency issued a proposal to classify those two PFAS as hazardous substances.
A few types of water filters can diminish PFAS levels, though 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 (aka charcoal), which can be installed on faucets house-wide or used in a tabletop pitcher, but a 2020 study found mixed results from those 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 the products contained indicators of the chemicals.
The Environmental Working Group (EWG) has a public, searchable database of cosmetics and personal-care products, highlighting ingredients with potential risks to human health, such as PFAS like Teflon. They also maintain a map where you can check if you live near a PFAS contamination site.
Ultimately, Cousins said, people don't need to be "super worried" about low-level exposure, since there's no strong evidence of major health impacts across the population. In the US, manufacturers have phased out the most harmful known PFAS — PFOA and PFOS — since the early 2000s. Over the last 20 years, levels of those substances in human blood have dropped, according to the CDC.
Still, reducing PFAS use in consumer products could keep the problem from getting worse in the future.
"I think we should use this to get a bit angry about what's happened and try and make change, so that we don't keep doing this," Cousins said. "Maybe we have to use [PFAS] in some cases, but only when they're absolutely essential. And then we should also try to innovate, to try and replace them in the longer term."
This story has been updated to reflect disagreements in the scientific community about the degree of PFAS exposure from Teflon. It was originally published on September 17, 2022.
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