Forever chemicals are all around us. Most people ingest or inhale these synthetic chemicals, which include per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), phenols, and parabens, through contaminated water and food — even air. They’re also in our cookware, packaging materials, furniture, clothes and carpets, making them nearly impossible to avoid.
In fact, studies show that nearly everyone has already been exposed to PFAS and has them circulating within their bodies. An estimated 97% of Americans have PFAS in their blood, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
A new report, published last week in the Journal of Exposure Science & Environmental Epidemiology, found that people with cancer have significantly higher levels of forever chemicals in their bodies. Could these chemicals be responsible for chronic diseases like cancer and cardiovascular disease? That’s the question scientists are eager to answer.
Forever chemicals break down slowly and can stay in the body for months or years. “What makes them different and important is that they are toxic, entirely man-made, and can remain in the environment and in the human body for a long time after we put them there,” Scott Bartell, a professor of environmental and occupational health at the University of California, Irvine, told HuffPost.
How PFAS can harm our health
In addition to what’s outlined above, PFAS exposure has been linked to a number of health issues, including cancer, reduced fertility, high blood pressure, changes in liver enzymes, and low birth weight — to name a few. They may also impair the immune system, reducing its ability to fight disease or respond to a vaccine, other research suggests.
Dr. Ned Calonge, associate dean for public health practice in the Colorado School of Public Health at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus, has investigated the health effects of PFAS. A 2022 report he collaborated on found a strong link between PFAS and kidney cancer, and more moderate association with breast and testicular cancer.
“We also found associations with high cholesterol, lower antibody response to vaccines, thyroid dysfunction, ulcerative colitis, and small decreases in fetal and infant growth rates,” Calonge said.
Scientists are still learning about if and how PFAS harm our health. Growing evidence suggests forever chemicals disrupt the endocrine system, meaning they can interfere with the production of hormones like estrogen, testosterone, and thyroid hormones. Hormone dysfunction may be a key component of carcinogenesis, past data suggests.
PFAS also mimic the fatty acids our bodies use for energy, potentially derailing how the body processes lipids. Some public health experts suspect certain PFAS may be neurotoxic and contribute to neurological diseases like Parkinson’s disease. The mechanisms may be unclear, but the association between PFAS and numerous health problems is undeniable.
Where are we exposed to forever chemicals?
PFAS are everywhere. They coat paper and cardboard food and beverage packaging. They’re in cosmetics — such as waterproof mascara, lipstick and foundation — and personal care products, including lotions, shampoos, shaving creams and body wash. They’re used in flame retardants along with water-resistant and stain-resistant textiles and clothing.
“These chemicals can leach into the food and beverages contained in such packaging or can be absorbed through the skin from personal care products,” Claudio said.
The main route of exposure is through our diet. High levels of PFAS are often identified in fish and shellfish like shrimp and crabs. The most common and most studied culprit: drinking water. A report from the Environmental Working Group found that over 200 million Americans likely have PFAS in their drinking water.
“PFAS are common contaminants in food and water, because they’ve been produced all over the world, and have found their way into the food chain and into many water supplies,” Bartell said.
While some evidence suggests people have lower levels of PFOS and PFOA — two types of PFAS — in their blood compared to 20 years ago, other reports say we now have new types of forever chemicals that are difficult to identify and assess, according to the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. Certain PFAS are no longer manufactured in the United States, however, “there are more than 15,000 PFAS still around today for which we have little research evidence,” Calonge said.
Only a few states, including Colorado and California, have introduced legislation restricting PFAS use in products. The United States Environmental Protection Agency is also working on new stricter standards for drinking water. But, for now, these chemicals remain ubiquitous ― because manufacturers are not required to disclose what chemicals they use, it’s often not clear what contains PFAS.
How to avoid forever chemicals
While it may not be possible to completely dodge forever chemicals, there are steps you can take to minimize your exposure. First, look for products that claim to be “PFAS-free.” It’s also worth avoiding non-stick cookware (especially if it’s flaking) along with stain and water-resistant clothing and furniture. Steer clear of items that contain the words “fluoro” and “perfluoro.” Vacuuming regularly can help remove PFAS from your carpets. When choosing a cosmetic or personal care product, refer to the EWG’s Skin Deep report. It reviews thousands of products, and based on its ingredients, gives them a health score.
When it comes to food, buy fresh, unpackaged items since the containers often contain harmful chemicals (unfortunately, that means less takeout). Wash your fruits and vegetables thoroughly before eating them.
Many state and local public health departments show the status of PFAS levels in local drinking water. If high levels are in your town’s drinking water, consider using NSF/ANSI certified filters to purify your water. You can also check with your local health department to see if there are any advisories on contaminated food products in the area, Calonge suggested.
It may not be easy to avoid PFAS, given the persistent and ubiquitous nature of these chemicals — not to mention the loose public health regulations.
“However, we can send a clear message to companies by choosing products that don’t have these chemicals and that minimize plastic packaging,” Claudio said.