A purple spatula and diced onion in a frying pan
Source: iStock

You’ve probably seen many headlines about PFAS, also known as “forever chemicals,” and how they have permeated pretty much every facet of our lives. But what are PFAS, exactly, and what risks do they pose to us humans?

On Green Lovers, you’ll find consistent coverage of news regarding PFAS to keep you informed on the latest studies and findings regarding this controversial group of chemicals, how they impact our health, and what laws have been proposed and instituted to reduce our exposure to forever chemicals.

What are PFAS? What does PFAS stand for?

PFAS, which stands for per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances, are a group of man-made, long-lasting chemicals, according to the EPA. These chemicals help repel grease, water, and other elements, so they are used widely in various industrial processes and everyday products, as per the Wisconsin Department of Health Services.

However, they really shouldn’t be.

Why are PFAS called forever chemicals?

According to the University of Rochester Medical Center, PFAS are made of carbon and fluorine molecules that have been attached to each other, resulting in a very strong bond. This strong bond means that PFAS are good at making products repel things, such as food and grease (which is why they’re used in non-stick cookware and food packaging), as well as water (why you’ll sometimes find PFAS in waterproof mascara and other makeup, as well as raincoats and other waterproof clothing).

That said, this strong bond is so strong that PFAS are extremely difficult to break down — meaning that PFAS essentially lasts forever, preventing items made with PFAS from biodegrading safety. Instead, as items with PFAS try to break down, the PFAS continue to persist, leaching toxins into nature, our bodies, and more.

Though some scientists have come up with ways to potentially break down PFAS, though none of these methods have been applied on a mass scale yet — so forever chemicals remain forever chemicals, at least for now.

When were PFAS invented?

According to the Interstate Technology and Regulatory Council, PFAS chemistry was first discovered in the 1930s. Scientists continued to develop PFAS chemicals through the late 1940s.

The mass production of PFAS chemicals did not begin until the 1940s. According to Searchlight New Mexico, in 1947, the corporation 3M began widely manufacturing PFOA, which is one of the most commonly-used PFAS substances. Many have blamed the massive company for bringing PFAS to the mass market, and in December 2022, 3M announced plans to stop manufacturing and using PFAS by 2025.

Then, in 1951, the chemical company DuPont began using PFOA to make Teflon, a repellent coating that is now commonly applied to frying pans, as well as various food packaging, clothing, furniture, dental fillings, and more.

What are PFAS used for?

Over the following decades, 3M, DuPont, and others continued innovating PFAS to come up with other uses for it. Over the years, manufacturers started using PFAS to make a variety of products, including: Teflon and other non-stick coatings, food packaging, waterproof makeup, waterproof shoes and clothing, rugs, dental floss, Scotchgard, firefighting foam, paint, ski wax, cleaning products, and more.

However, those aren’t the only places PFAS are found.

Where have PFAS been detected? They are in our water, soil, and air.

Because PFAS has been used so widely in manufacturing and consumer products, this persistent chemical has made its way into nearly every facet of life on Earth. PFAS have been detected: in the soil, water, and air; in the air and carpets in kindergarten classrooms; in drinking water; in rainwater; in freshwater fish; and even in breast milk.

Humans can be exposed to PFAS via any of these things — meaning it’s pretty hard to not be exposed to PFAS.

PFAS presents various risks for human health and the environment:

Much like when fossil fuels were discovered, the associated environmental and health risks of PFAS were not clear when PFAS were first developed. But for a few decades now, the health risks of exposure to high levels of PFAS have been evident, and backed up by scientific research.

Being exposed to PFAS chemicals has been linked to various health issues, including: cancer; high cholesterol; thyroid dysfunction; hormone disruption; fatty liver and disruption of liver function; immune system issues; and reproductive issues, according to Toxic-Free Future.

PFAS also present a number of environmental risks, as detailed by the CDC. They have been detected in rivers, lakes, and drinking water sources, as well as the soil and even the air. Consequently, they have been found in animals, including fish, who humans then consume.

And as previously mentioned, PFAS do not safely break down in the environment, making them much more persistent than other potentially toxic substances that enter our environment.

How to avoid PFAS:

It’s virtually impossible to completely eliminate all PFAS exposure; however, we can take steps to reduce our contact with these chemicals.

Toxic-Free Future recommends avoiding items that are likely to contain PFAS — these are generally anything marked as stain-resistant or water-resistant, packaged greasy foods, and cooking products made with non-stick or Teflon coatings.

You can also look at PFAS Central’s database of PFAS-free products, and our list of PFAS-free makeup brands.

And when shopping for an item that you suspect may be made with PFAS, look into the brand’s policies regarding PFAS. If it does not have anything on the website, consider contacting the brand about this, and asking the company to declare a PFAS-free policy.

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