- Dangerous “forever chemicals” called PFAS contaminate drinking water, food and air.
- It may be impossible to completely avoid PFAS, but there are a few simple ways to reduce your exposure.
- Eating at home, cutting out non-stick pans and unnecessary carpets, and filtering the water can help.
Dangerous, long-lasting chemicals are ubiquitous in our daily environment. The US Environmental Protection Agency has just taken its first step in removing them from tap water, but that won’t remove them from your home.
Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, are a class of thousands of man-made substances that are widely used in everyday objects. Peer-reviewed studies have linked them to some cancers, reduced fertility, thyroid disease, and developmental delays, among others.
That’s bad news, as PFAS last for decades without degrading, earning them the nickname “Forever Chemicals.” Researchers have found them in drinking water, house dust, rainwater and soil around the world, in the oceans, at both poles and drifting through the atmosphere.
Ian Cousins, who studies PFAS at Stockholm University, worries that avoiding the chemicals is impossible.
“I don’t care,” Cousins told Insider, adding, “It’s almost impossible. You can’t really do it.”
While you can’t completely avoid PFAS, there are a few simple ways to reduce exposure in your daily life.
Eat at home, with minimal greaseproof packaging
PFAS were developed in the 1940’s to resist heat, grease, stains and water. That means they ended up in a lot of food packaging. This includes pizza boxes, microwave popcorn bags, some packaging, and greaseproof paper.
Restaurants and fast food chains may use such packaging more often than grocery stores. A 2019 study found that people had lower levels of PFAS in their blood after eating at home and higher levels after eating fast food or in restaurants.
Still, Cousins said, “All food is contaminated with PFAS.”
Be careful with coated pans
The coating of non-stick cookware usually contains PFAS, which can easily leach into your food at high heat and once the coating is scratched.
The Washington Department of Ecology does not recommend heating nonstick cookware above 400 degrees Fahrenheit and recommends discarding it once the nonstick coating is scratched. Cast iron pans are a safe alternative.
However, Cousins said, “Scratching on pans is not a problem for exposure.” He added that the Teflon coating contained only small amounts of harmful PFAS, but the worst of it was phased out in the early 2000s.
Throw away your stain-resistant carpet and fabrics
Water and stain repellent treatments common to household items like carpets and clothing like raincoats also contain PFAS. Some researchers don’t think the chemicals can easily be absorbed into your body through your skin, but these substances give off fibers that travel around the house as dust and can eventually be swallowed or inhaled.
“You can find things that don’t have PFAS in them, and that in turn helps the companies that innovate,” Elsie Sunderland, who leads Harvard’s environmental pollutants research, told Insider.
Vacuuming, dusting and opening windows
PFAS accumulate in dust, which remains in the air and allows people to breathe the chemicals into their lungs. By dusting and vacuuming regularly, and opening windows for airflow and ventilation, you can keep dust levels down in your home and reduce the amount of PFAS you ingest.
“Dust can be pretty big [PFAS] Indoor environment source,” Sunderland said.
In fact, she added: “Many different contaminants are absorbed into dust. So by wiping down surfaces regularly and keeping areas clean, you are actually minimizing exposure.”
Test your drinking water and treat it if necessary
You can have your water tested for PFAS by a laboratory certified by your state. If the water exceeds EPA or state guidelines, you may want to do 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 associated with a reduced vaccine response in children.
That research prompted the EPA last year to revise its drinking water guidelines, reducing safe levels of these substances by a factor of 17,000. In August, the agency published a proposal to classify these two PFAS as hazardous substances.
Some types of water filters can reduce PFAS levels, although they may not completely remove the chemicals from the water. State environmental agencies recommend filtration systems that use reverse osmosis for tap water. These are usually installed under the sink and can cost several hundred dollars.
The next best option are filtration systems that use activated carbon (aka charcoal), which can be installed on faucets throughout the home or used in a table jug, but a 2020 study found mixed results from these 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 of the products contained indicators of the chemicals.
The Environmental Working Group (EWG) has a public, searchable database of cosmetics and personal care products that highlights ingredients with potential risks to human health, such as: B. PFAS such as Teflon. They also keep a map to check if you live near a PFAS contamination site.
The Green Science Policy Institute also maintains a list of PFAS-free products, including a guide for cosmetics.
Ultimately, Cousins says, people don’t need to be “big worried” about low levels of exposure because there’s no clear evidence of major health effects in the population. In the US, manufacturers have been gradually phasing out the most harmful known PFAS – PFOA and PFOS – since the early 2000s. Over the past 20 years, levels of these substances in human blood have fallen, according to the CDC.
Still, reducing PFAS use in consumer products could prevent the problem from getting worse in the future.
“I think we should use this to get a little angry about what happened and try to change something so we don’t continue to do that,” Cousins said. “Maybe we need to consume [PFAS] in some cases, but only when absolutely necessary. And then we should also try to innovate, to replace them in the longer term.”
This story has been updated in light of the US Environmental Protection Agency’s proposal to limit six PFAS in drinking water. It was previously updated to reflect disagreements in the scientific community about the extent of PFAS exposure from Teflon. It was originally released on September 17, 2022.