Perfluorinated and polyfluorinated substances, called PFAS for short, are a large group of man-made chemicals now found in almost every corner of the planet. These chemicals are used in so many consumer products, they virtually fill our closets and pantries.
But research has shown that some PFAS can be harmful to our health, with exposure linked to numerous conditions including high cholesterol, thyroid disease, and even cancer. What’s more, scientists aren’t sure if they ever fully degrade in the environment — hence the nickname “forever chemicals.”
The more we understand about PFAS, the easier it is to avoid exposure. Here are some of the facts to know about PFAS chemicals.
What Are PFAS?
PFAS are man-made chemicals that are best known for their nonstick properties. They’re resistant to heat, water, oil, and grease, which has made them extremely useful in modern life.
These properties come from their chemical structure: molecules made up of carbon and fluorine atoms that form one of the strongest bonds in chemistry. This bond gives them superstrength, nonstick power — and is what makes PFAS almost impossible to break down in nature.
“They can withstand a lot of conditions, and that’s why they’re so helpful in manufacturing,” says Erin Bell, PhD, a professor of environmental health sciences at the School of Public Health at the State University of New York in Albany and a co-leader of a multisite study on the human health effects of PFAS exposure.
“That’s what makes them so persistent,” she says. “They stay in the environment. They stay in our bodies.”
That persistence can take a real toll. A study published in July 2022 in Exposure and Health estimates the cost of the annual disease burden due to PFAS exposure in the United States at $5.5 billion at least.
What Kind of Products Contain PFAS?
The chemicals were introduced to American consumers in the 1950s in products like Teflon-coated pans and Scotchgard fabric protector. Later came Gore-Tex fabrics and Stainmaster carpets.
Fast-forward to today: PFAS are found in so many products, there’s barely a store shelf that doesn’t have them.
These products include:
- Nonstick cookware
- Microwavable popcorn bags
- Pizza boxes
- Paper and plastic food packaging
- Fast-food and candy wrappers
- Creams and lotions
- Shampoos and conditioners
- Makeup, especially waterproof cosmetics
- Dental floss
- Nail polish
- Waterproof shoes and clothing
- Outdoor gear and rainwear
- Ski wax
- Stain-proof carpets and upholstery
- Cleaners and detergents
- Floor waxes and polish
- Paints, varnishes, and sealants
How Are We Exposed to PFAS?
Though most people are exposed in a variety of ways, Dr. Bell says, the bulk of our exposure occurs through drinking water.
Major sources of PFAS water pollution have been paper mills, textile and chemical plants, landfills, wastewater facilities, airports, and military bases where PFAS-filled fire foam (PDF) was used. When PFAS pollute nearby streams and rivers, they can end up in drinking water. The Environmental Working Group estimates that more than 200 million people are exposed through tap water alone.
PFAS can be inhaled through dust particles that float around our homes and offices. Because they’re found in food packaging, we also consume them in our food. When farm water or fertilizer is polluted by PFAS, they’re taken up by the plants and animals we eat.
The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATDSR) estimates that more than 98 percent of Americans have some level of PFAS in their blood.
Certain workers have a higher risk of exposure. These include chemical plant workers, military personnel, and firefighters who wear PFAS-lined gear and work with certain fire foams.
Are PFAS Harmful to Our Health?
Researchers have found links between PFAS and increased risk of:
In fact, the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences classifies PFAS chemicals as endocrine disruptors, which interfere with proper function of the body’s hormones.
The largest study to date on health conditions linked to PFAS was carried out almost 20 years ago in a community exposed to PFOA in West Virginia. The residents eventually won a class action lawsuit against chemical maker DuPont, which owned a local plant that released PFOA into the Ohio River and resulted in workers becoming sick.
How Do PFAS Affect Children?
Data from other studies (PDF) have shown that children with higher exposures had a lowered immune response to childhood vaccines. A Danish study published in 2020 associated PFAS exposure with an increased risk of severe COVID-19.
“There seems to be a consistent association that we see with the immune system in children, in terms of a reduced response to vaccines,” Bell says, “meaning they have the potential to be less effective.” But researchers are still learning about the possible health effects from PFAS exposure, she says.
Research clearly shows that exposure to PFAS begins in the womb. “PFAS does cross the placental barrier,” says Laura Anderko, PhD, RN, co-director of the Mid-Atlantic Center for Children’s Health and the Environment at Villanova University in Pennsylvania. They’re also fed to infants through breast milk.
Children and babies are more vulnerable to toxic exposures because they’re still growing and developing, says Dr. Anderko, who, along with Bell, co-authored a guide to PFAS (PDF) for healthcare providers and the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.
“As the baby is developing and growing — its neurodevelopmental system, the immune system, the endocrine system — it’s more at risk of being damaged because of all the development that’s occurring,” she says.
How Long Does It Take to Eliminate PFAS From Our Bodies?
The chemicals can be slow to leave the human body. The compounds have half-lives that range from days to decades, according to the ATDSR (PDF), depending on a person’s diet, health, and exposure history. This is especially true for women, says Bell, who lose PFAS through menstruation, childbirth, and breastfeeding.
The two most well-known PFAS chemicals, PFOA and PFOS, have half-lives of about three to five years. Newer replacement PFAS, such as PFBA and GenX chemicals (PDF), are less persistent, with shorter half-lives, says Bell. “But we cannot say that makes them safe,” she says. “It just means that they’re not in our body as long.”
How Can I Remove PFAS From My Drinking Water?
Although most of our exposure to PFAS comes from drinking water, the good news is there are a variety of ways to remove the chemicals from water to reduce our exposure.
One of the most effective methods is through reverse osmosis, a process that filters water through a semipermeable membrane. Another is granular activated carbon filters, which run water through high-carbon organic materials.
Filtration systems can be installed at the point of entry — on or near your home’s main water line — or at the point of use, as tap units or in refrigerators and water pitchers. (However, research has shown that some of these filters are only partially effective at removing PFAS.) These and other types of filters are available for consumers to install in their homes, although they can be pricey.
How Else Can I Limit My Exposure to PFAS?
Besides filtering your drinking water, there are several ways to decrease your overall exposure.
Avoid Products Advertised as Nonstick or Stain- or Water-Resistant
These include stain-proof carpets, furniture, clothing, and outdoor gear. Currently, U.S. manufacturers are not required to notify shoppers when a product is made with PFAS, so it can be tricky to find products that are PFAS-free. But a good rule of thumb is to stay away from products labeled “nonstick,” says Bell.
The same goes for cookware. If the label says “Teflon,” it could expose you to PFAS. Alternative cookware options include cast iron, stainless steel, aluminum, and ceramic pots and pans.
“I tell folks to throw away their nonstick pans, because even if it’s not PFOA or PFOS, there are other PFAS chemicals in there,” Anderko explains. “The science is not out yet on those newer chemicals.”
Pass on Foods Packaged in Nonstick Wrappers and Containers
Some of the PFAS that coat packaging can get into foods. “A lot of takeout containers and bakery bags have this coating to keep the grease from leaking,” says Anderko. She notes that food-labeling laws were designed specifically for the contents of food, not packaging.
“Unless PFAS were used in the food product, then they don’t need to list it,” she says. “Better for your heart and better for the rest of your body not to eat as much fried, greasy food with packaging containing PFAS.”
Steer Clear of Products That Have ‘Fluoro,’ ‘PTFE,’ or ‘Teflon’ Listed as Ingredients
Products that may contain these ingredients include lipsticks, makeup powders, and personal hygiene products like dental floss and shampoo. The Environmental Working Group has a database that tracks thousands of personal-care items that contain PFAS and other toxic ingredients.
Get Your Water Tested
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) requires most public water providers to test for PFAS. If your home is connected to a public water system, contact your local water utility and ask to see recent test results. If you have a private well, you can have your water tested by a private lab.
Be Careful Where You Fish
Fish are a product of the water they live in, and many lakes and streams carry pollutants. Fish take in these contaminants, storing them in their fat and muscle tissues. Many states and municipalities publish information about contaminated fish, where they are, and how much is safe to consume. Historically, fish pollutants have included PCBs and mercury, but PFAS are being detected more often.
Why Are Products Made With PFAS?
Believe it or not, PFAS have some good uses. The chemicals are found in construction materials that build homes and cities. They waterproof outdoor gear and help power airplanes. They’re found in implantable medical devices like heart stents and pacemakers. And they go into parts that build cell phones and semiconductors.
Their nonstick, heat- and water-resistant properties make them highly useful in construction, manufacturing, aeronautics, automotive, and technology sectors, among other industries.
Are There Laws to Protect People From PFAS?
In 2016, the EPA set a lifetime health advisory level of 70 parts per trillion for PFOA and PFOS in drinking water. But it’s a nonenforceable guideline. There is currently no federal regulation of PFAS in drinking water.
Instead, regulation has fallen to states, which vary widely in their approach to controlling PFAS. Some states have almost no protections, while Maine, Vermont, New York, New Jersey, and California, for example, have adopted strict rules to limit PFAS in water and consumer goods.
Many uses of PFOA and PFOS have been phased out by U.S. manufacturers, but certain uses continue, and the chemicals are still imported in goods from abroad. However, current EPA rules (PDF) include a timeline to restrict PFAS across several industries.
In June 2022, the agency issued new recommendations (PDF) to cap PFAS in drinking water — PFOA, PFOS, and GenX included — at levels that are drastically lower than the current advisory.
If PFAS Are So Hard to Break Down, Can We Ever Get Rid of Them?
Scientists and engineers are working hard to design technologies to remove PFAS from our air, soil, and water. Existing PFAS disposal methods include incineration and landfills. But these processes are imperfect; in some cases, the chemicals can leach back into the environment.
PFAS are not going away anytime soon. But awareness is growing, and researchers are learning more about these chemicals every day, Anderko says. Solutions need to come from a coordinated effort at the federal level, one that’s “informed by scientific evidence” and the general public, she says.
Consumers have the power to choose whether to buy PFAS-laden goods and products, she adds. “We were sold this bill of goods: ‘Better Living Through Chemistry,’” says Anderko, referring to an old slogan by DuPont. “And the reality is, not always and not usually. So we have the power through what we consume and what we buy. We should use it.”
Resources to Learn More About PFAS
The Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit watchdog group, offers a collection of data and resources to educate the public about the risks of PFAS exposure. One of its standout educational tools is the Skin Deep cosmetics database, which ranks thousands of personal-care and beauty products according to an ingredient hazard score.
The group’s PFAS contamination map provides information on hundreds of known PFAS contamination sites in the United States. Users can click on the interactive map to get details on individual contamination sites.
Based at the University of Rhode Island, the STEEP research group presents a well-written overview of PFAS in the United States on its website, where it shares the latest PFAS research and news, and has an easy-to-read section on health risks to mothers and infants.
Chemical and Engineering News produced this science-y explainer on why PFAS are known as forever chemicals, complete with a visual display of the chemical structures of the most common PFAS found in our environment.
Reported by journalist Sharon Lerner, this investigative series from The Intercept offers a deep dive into the history of America’s PFAS problem and the corporations that started it.
‘Exposure’ by Rob Bilott
This book tells the story of residents in Parkersburg, West Virginia, who were exposed to PFAS that came from a DuPont chemical plant. Written by the plaintiffs’ attorney Rob Bilott, who led a successful class-action lawsuit filed against DuPont, the book details how the company’s own scientists found that PFAS had harmed the health of workers at the plant decades ago. The book inspired the film Dark Waters, released in 2019.
This 2018 documentary follows the story of a class-action lawsuit filed against the chemical giant DuPont.