PFAS are perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances used for decades in firefighting foam and to make products such as nonstick cookware, stain-repellent mats, waterproof jackets, and oil and grease-repellent fast-food wrappers.
They are commonly known as forever chemicals because they do not break down in the environment. Some accumulate in human blood and take years to leave the body.
Long-term exposure to small concentrations of certain PFASs can trigger testicular and kidney cancer, birth defects, liver damage, fertility problems, immune system disorders, high cholesterol and obesity, studies have found. Links to breast cancer and other diseases are suspected.
Chemicals are difficult to avoid. They have been found in people and the environment around the world. But government officials and nonprofit groups offer suggestions on how you can reduce your exposure.
- Consider testing your drinking water. In Illinois alone, more than 8 million people in the state get their water from a utility where at least one chemical has been detected forever. If PFAS are detected in your water, the nonprofit NSF recommends filters capable of reducing chemical concentrations for good.
- House dust is another source of exposure. Use HEPA filters when vacuuming, remove dust with damp cloths and mops, and wash your hands often, especially before eating.
- Cut back on fast food, greasy takeout, and microwave popcorn because it often comes in PFAS-treated packaging.
- Choose cosmetics and other personal care products without “PTFE” or “fluoro” ingredients. Anything that claims to be waterproof is probably made with PFAS. The nonprofit Environmental Working Group maintains a database to help identify which shampoos, floss, makeup and other personal care products do and do not contain PFAS and other toxic substances.
- Look for products that haven’t been pre-treated to resist stains, and skip the optional stain-repellent treatment on new carpets and furniture.
- Avoid nonstick cookware and cookware made with PTFE or PFAS. If the product’s label says it’s PFOA-free, it may still contain other chemicals forever.
- Stain- and water-resistant clothing and outdoor gear may contain PFAS. Look for retailers that have policies that restrict the use of chemicals.
Sources: Consumer Reports, Environmental Working Group, Green Science Policy Institute, US Environmental Protection Agency.