PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances) are a class of extremely resistant man-made chemicals used in various industries worldwide since the 1940’s. There are over 5.000 different types of PFAS, with PFOA and PFOS being the most used and studied ones.
The main benefit and drawback of these chemicals is that they are very stable and don’t break down in contact with oil, water and heat. This makes them very useful in manufacturing stain- and water-resistant clothing, shoes and furniture, as well as nonstick cookware, oil-resistant food packaging, paints and polishes. PFAS are also a key ingredient in producing fire-fighting foams.
Since the early 2000’s, scientists started finding PFAS in different concentrations around plants that used it in the production process, including freshwater sources, soil and in animals. They noticed that these chemicals are so resistant that they don’t break down and accumulate in the surroundings, as well as living organisms.
By 2006, there was sufficient evidence proving that these chemicals (PFOS and PFOA in particular) were harmful for the environment and human health, which urged the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to ban the production of only one such chemical, PFOA, in the United States. However, it can still enter the U.S. from abroad, where it continues to be manufactured.
In 2019, the UN banned all production of PFOA worldwide and by the end of the year, this specific chemical will no longer be manufactured. Still, there are several locations in the United States that have been polluted by forever chemicals in the past, and the recent FDA report shows that in some of these locations, PFAS pollution deeply penetrated the environment and even the food industry.
There are several ways you can be exposed to different amounts of forever chemicals. We discuss each below.
1. At your workplace. Some manufaturing facilities, such as those producing electronics, chrome plates use PFAS in the manufacturing process, and so do some oil recovery facilities. Firefighters are exposed to PFAS because it’s in fire-fighting foams.
2. From drinking water. If you live near a firefighter training facility, landfill, wastewater treatment facility, or plant that manufactures or uses PFAS, the chemicals can seep into the drinking water supply and contaminate it.
3. From foods. PFAS build up in foods, such as fish, meat, milk and plant foods as they are exposed to forever chemicals through polluted soil, water, as well as equipment or food packaging containing PFAS.
4. From home goods. As we mentioned previously, PFAS are widely used in the production of water-resistant clothing, textiles, shoes and nonstick cookware, all of which get in contact with your body.
Recently, FDA representatives took 91 samples from grocery stores across the country, especially in locations with known PFAS contamination. The conclusions of this process were summed up in a report that found that a dairy farm in New Mexico could be a health hazard. The dairy products had high levels of PFAS that came from groundwater contaminated with forever chemicals.
A similar case of contamination was also found at a farm producing leafy green vegetables in North Carolina, as well as 12 other samples, but the FDA concluded that none of these contaminated products posed a health concern.
Despite the conclusions, these findings are very alarming, especially since we know that PFAS can accumulate in the human body for years until they cause adverse health effects. More on these specific effects below.
Still, we don’t know a lot about the real long-term effects of these chemicals, as they haven’t been studied enough. The strongest evidence of the above-listed health hazards of PFAS we have for now is from the C8 Health Project, a study that looked at the long-term effects of water contamination in Ohio and West Virginia since the 1950's until 2002.
As of 2019, there are no laws regulating the safe levels for forever chemicals in the environment, as well as the food industry and manufacturing. Hopefully, in the near future, such binding regulations will appear and the production of forever chemicals will be brought to a possible minimum.
If you want to learn more on this topic, listen to some personal stories and ways local governments try to remedy water pollution with PFAS, you can also watch the BONUS VIDEO below.