Experts weigh in on PFAS, their health risks, and what can be done to avoid them
By Michelle Talsma Everson
Since the 1950s, per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) have been used in consumer products around the world, according to the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS). “They are ingredients in various everyday products,” cites the NIEHS. “For example, PFAS are used to keep food from sticking to packaging or cookware, make clothes and carpets resistant to stains, and create firefighting foam that is more effective.”
Because of their prevalence, PFAS have been given the name “forever chemicals,” and many experts note their potentially negative side effects. So, what are PFAS, and how do they impact us? And – perhaps most importantly – what can we do to prevent any health risks associated with them?
Forever Chemicals 101
“PFAS are a group of human-made chemicals that have been used to make things waterproof, non-stick, or stain resistant,” explains Riggs Eckelberry, a top national water expert and founder/CEO of OriginClear, described as a “Clean Water Innovation Hub that develops projects to solve America’s water problems.”
“Think Teflon, fire-fighting foams, varnishes – things you don’t want to be consuming,” he continues. “These chemicals are very long lasting by design and can persist in the environment for thousands of years – hence the term ‘forever chemicals.’”
Dr. Paula Ruffin, D.C., is a speaker, chiropractor, and functional nutritionist with an expertise in forever chemicals. “To put it more simply, they [forever chemicals] are man-made, highly toxic substances that will not break down in a natural environment,” she elaborates. “They are quite literally in everything we touch, eat, and breathe… One very common class of forever chemicals is phthalates. The most obvious place you’ll find phthalates is in body care products, scented plug-ins, air fresheners, perfumes, and candles.”
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), “PFAS can be present in our water, soil, air, and food, as well as in materials found in our homes or workplaces.”
“Due to their widespread production and use, as well as their ability to move and persist in the environment, surveys conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) show that most people in the United States have been exposed to some PFAS,” cites the EPA. “Most known exposures are relatively low, but some can be high, particularly when people are exposed to a concentrated source over long periods of time. Some PFAS chemicals can accumulate in the body over time.”
Health Concerns of PFAS
Because of their overuse, there has been a lot of research into the potential health consequences of PFAS. “Current scientific research suggests that exposure to high levels of certain PFAS may lead to adverse health outcomes,” according to the EPA. “However, research is still ongoing to determine how different levels of exposure to different PFAS can lead to a variety of health effects.”
“Because of their persistent nature, they can build up in our bodies and negatively impact our health,” Eckelberry says. “According to the EPA, exposure to PFAS can impact reproductive health, cause developmental delays in children, increase certain cancer risks, reduce immune system function, impact hormones, and even increase cholesterol.”
“Many people may not even make a connection between their health and their exposure to these forever chemicals,” Ruffin adds. “They are linked to a multitude of health concerns.”
Ruffin notes that prolonged exposure to forever chemicals can be connected to everything from behavioral issues in children to allergies, immune issues, and problems during pregnancy. She also says that forever chemicals may contribute to decreased fertility and lower testosterone levels.
The EPA notes that research into these chemicals is continuous and multifaceted. “Scientists at EPA, in other federal agencies, and in academia and industry are continuing to conduct and review the growing body of research about PFAS,” according to the EPA.
“Because there are many types of PFAS chemicals, which often occur in complex mixtures and in various everyday products, researchers face challenges in studying them,” cites the NIH. “More research is needed to fully understand all sources of exposure, and if and how they may cause health problems.”
While ongoing research is being conducted, most experts agree that there are multiple verifiable health issues associated with prolonged exposure to forever chemicals.
How to Reduce Exposure to PFAS
“We can be exposed to PFAS in a number of ways, including, food, food packaging, personal care products, and even our public drinking water,” Eckelberry says. “This is why I highly recommend having a water filtration system minimally at your kitchen tap to help prevent exposure to these and other chemicals that can be found in our water supply. The reality is that industry is the prime culprit, and they need to keep us all safe by finding better, safer technology and by taking care of the water right where it’s polluted, so that it never gets into our water supply or soil in the first place. This is something we should make noise about.”
Ruffin advises that controlling your own personal environment is one of the best ways to help reduce exposure to forever chemicals. Some steps she recommends taking include:
- Getting your water tested and using a quality filtration system.
- Decreasing your use of plastics as best you can.
- Read labels and reduce your usage of products with high PFA levels. One resource she recommends is pfascentral.org/pfas-free-products.
- Eat fresh, organic fruits and vegetables when possible.
- Reduce consumption of paper products when possible.
“While all of this can get super overwhelming, I encourage everyone to just start somewhere,” she says. “Don’t feel like you must accomplish a whole list or go live off-grid in the mountains somewhere. Control what’s controllable… Pick one thing, and when you are comfortable with that change, pick another. Personally, I think the simplest thing to start with is removing all the perfumes, air fresheners, and candles from the home, then get your water tested. Remember, this is a marathon, not a sprint.”
To learn more about forever chemicals, including links to various government agencies and research being done on the topic, visit epa.gov/pfas/our-current-understanding-human-health-and-environmental-risks-pfas.