A group of chemicals known as “forever chemicals” has made headlines as a major health and enviornmental threat. Forever chemicals are found in the most unsuspecting everyday products, making it very difficult (but not impossible) to minimize exposure. Understanding forever chemicals is the first step in reducing their presence and impact in your life.
In this article, we’ll explore what forever chemicals are, the risks that they pose to your health and environment alike, and how you can reduce your exposure.
What are Forever Chemicals?
Forever chemicals are technically per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). More specifically, they are a type of synthetic chemicals with strong carbon-fluorine bonds.
They earned the name forever chemicals because they are not easily broken down by the body or environment. The strong bonds in forever chemicals make them highly resistant to elements that typically breakdown chemicals such as heat, water, and oil. This is also the reason for why PFAS are widely used across industries and consumer products.
For example, their ability to resist water and oil make forever chemicals an attractive ingredient for non-stick cooking ware, umbrellas, and carpeting. According to the Clean Water Action organization, PFAS may be present in:
- Clothing: fabric protector, outdoor gear, stain-proof fabrics, and waterproof wear
- Food packaging: bakery bags, disposable food wrappers, microwavable popcorn bags, pizza boxes, and take out containers
- Home & auto: artificial turf, car seats, furniture textiles, rugs, and window treatments
- Toiletries: dental floss, water-proof make-up, and menstruation underwear
Usually, PFAS are present in the form of perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS).
Since they cannot easily break down, forever chemicals tend to linger within the body as well as in the planet’s water and soil. It’s this tenacity that can lead to negative health conseuqneces over time.
Understanding the Risks:
As research continues to develop, concerns regarding the potential health hazards associated with these chemicals have heightened.
Here are the key risks associated with forever chemicals:
- Cancer: A 2021 review of 28 studies observed an association between forever chemicals and certain types of cancer, including testicular and kidney cancer. However, many of the studies done on PFAS and cancer risk are small or have a weak study design. More research is needed to draw a strong association between PFAS and cancer.
- Damage to Reproductive Health: Multiple studies have observed that exposure to PFAS may negatively effect fertility, pregnancy outcomes, and child development.
- Liver and Kidney Issues: Large amounts of PFAS in the body are linked to liver and kidney damage.
- Poor Thyroid Function: According to researchers, forever chemicals can disrupt the healthy function of the thyroid hormone, which can cascade into a variety of health issues including poor metabolism function, cardiovascular health, and fertility.
- Weakened Immune System: Forever chemicals may suppress protective antibodies, including antibodies from vaccines, according to a review of 487 articles that investigated the effect of PFAS on the immune system. Forever chemicals can also promote oxidative stress which can damage the body’s healthy cells.
While additional research is needed to fully understand the long-term consequences of PFAS exposure, the current evidence warrants a closer look at strategies to reduce our contact with forever chemicals.
Mitigation Strategies and DIY Hacks:
We now know that forever chemicals are abundant in everyday products. Fortunately, avoiding them isn’t impossible. There are plenty of ways that you can lessen your exposure to forever chemicals.
Here are the top mitigation strategies for avoiding PFAS:
1. Be a Mindful Consumer
One of the simplest ways to dodge forever chemicals is by choosing products that are labeled as PFAS-free. Additionally, some certifications can let you know that a product is PFAS-free, such as the:
- GreenScreen Screen Certified Standard for Food Service Ware ® by the Clean Production Action Group
- Green Seal Certified® by Green Seal for cleaning and personal care products.
2. Safe Cooking Practices:
When possible, refrain from using cookware labeled as non-stick. Instead, choose stainless steel, cast iron, and ceramic cookware.
If you do use a non-stick pan, ensure that you are avoiding high heat cooking methods as this can exacerbate the release of PFAS into your food and environment.
3. DIY Your Cleaning Products:
Harsh cleaning products are notorious for containing forever chemicals. You can reduce your exposure by making your own cleaning solutions with natural ingredients. For instance, a general cleaning solution can be as simple as combining gentle dish soap with white vinegar and essential oils.
4. Water Filtration Systems:
The main certification programs accredited by the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) include:
- NSF Water Treatment Device Certification Program
- Underwriters Laboratories
- Water Quality Association
Changing out your water filter according to the manufacturer’s instructions will also be key in reducing PFAS in your drinking water supply.
5. Natural Fabrics and Clothing
When possible, steer clear of fabrics labeled as “water-proof” or “stain-resistant.” These fabrics, sometimes branded as “Teflon” or “Gore-Tex,” typically use forever chemicals to repel water and oil. Instead, choose fabrics made from natural materials.
6. Minimize Use of Fast Food Packaging
Food packaging is a notorious source of forever chemicals. Given their prevalence, avoid fast food packaging like disposable containers and bakery bags when possible.
Advocating for Regulation and Change:
There is a growing recognition of the urgency to regulate and sunset the use of forever chemicals where possible. Organizations at all levels, including the government, environmental organizations, and citizen groups are taking proactive steps to initiate change. Globally, certain countries and regions are phasing in stricter regulations on the production and use of forever chemicals, especially as it pertains to manufacturing, textiles, and firefighting materials.
Collectively, consumers want transparent labeling of products containing PFAS to further minimize exposure. Moreover, consumers and non-profits are pressuring companies to find and use safer alternatives to forever chemicals in their products.
Additionally, you can stay informed about local and national regulations related to PFAS by becoming involved with organizations and advocacy groups working on PFAS-related issues.
Together, these initiatives are vital steps toward minimizing PFAS exposure and protecting both human health and the environment.
Forever chemicals have raised significant concerns related to their permanence and potential health risks. Although everyday products commonly contain them, taking steps to reduce your exposure to PFAS can help protect your health. Moreover, it can help minimize the release of forever chemicals into the environment. By implementing lifestyle changes, you can lessen your exposure and contribute to a cleaner planet. Stay informed and take action to avoid forever chemicals.