Working for Your Health: PFAS and you

Making the safest choices is part of the process of lessening contamination.


What is PFAS?

There’s been a lot of news lately — much of it cautionary — about the chemicals known as PFAS (perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances). Chances are you’ve been exposed to them, perhaps unknowingly, as you go about your day. Because these chemicals are very effective at repelling water and oil, they are used heavily in manufacturing, and found in products on shelves across America. Every time you slide an omelet from a nonstick pan, don your raincoat to walk the dog, or settle into the cushion of an outdoor lounge chair, you may be getting closer than you think.

PFAS is created by bonding carbon with fluorine, which makes it ultra-stable and prevents it from degrading, even under extreme environmental circumstances. Developed and honed by chemists throughout the 20th century, its advent was celebrated as a boon to the manufacturing industry, ultimately revolutionizing our relationship with the products around us. PFAS-infused items have made our lives more efficient, safer, affordable, and even less painful (think stain-resistant fabrics, firefighting foam, moisture-resistant electronics, and IV catheters). Touted as innovative, and sometimes even miraculous, PFAS became a large part of the postwar economic expansion, spawning businesses around the world, and facilitating corporate growth. Little did we know there would be a price to pay for its convenience, the cost of which we are still measuring.

Why should we care?

PFAS are characterized as “forever chemicals,” meaning they resist breaking down over time, and tend not to dissolve in water. Many scientists are concerned that they will build to levels that could harm the environment — and our bodies. A growing body of evidence supports this point.

During a recent interview, Linda Birnbaum, former director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and the National Toxicology Program, recounted the hundreds of studies that have been done on several types of PFAS. We now know that PFAS has an adverse effect on animals, and in cellular cultures. Longitudinal studies (which study the same people over a long period of time) reveal correlations linking PFAS exposure to cancer, type II diabetes, endocrine/hormonal disruption, high cholesterol, cardiovascular disease, and other serious health issues ( PFAS can harm developing fetuses. It may even dysregulate our immune systems, leading to a reduction in the effectiveness of vaccines, among other things — unsettling to think about during pandemic times.

Dr. Birnbaum mentioned the Ohio River Valley Study as one of many that helped inform researchers and the general public of the dangers of PFAS. Some readers may remember the poor health and birth defects a local population endured following exposure to chemicals in the air and watershed near a DuPont chemical factory. A total of 931 residents were tracked from 1991 to 2012, and their blood samples revealed high levels of 11 types of PFAS. These were the same chemicals found in Teflon-coated pans, waterproof clothing, stain-resistant carpets, microwave popcorn bags, and other items of convenience ( and

How prevalent are PFAS … really?

Two studies published by the American Chemical Society show us how pervasive PFAS really are. Water samples taken in a remote strait between Norway and the east coast of Greenland revealed 10 types of PFAS, some of which were in water 3,000 feet deep. And wastewater analysis found rampant evidence of it, likely from cosmetics, textiles, food packaging, and other common products (

Identifying products containing PFAS can be tricky. Items that we think are safe might be tainted. For example, produce labeled “organic” may still contain PFAS, because USDA organic certification does not require the soil where food is grown to be tested (

Dr. Birnbaum said there are an estimated 12,000 to 15,000 types of PFAS, and highlighted that we have only done studies on a small number of them. They have penetrated every corner of the globe, accumulating in our soil and waterways — including our bloodstreams. Our knowledge is still evolving on the extent of harm they can elicit.

What does the future hold?

As of this writing, PFAS are largely unregulated. There are no safe level standards or nontoxic alternatives. As if from the pages of a science fiction novel, PFAS is a silent foe that likes to evade detection, hide in unassuming places, and pop up unexpectedly. It’s almost impossible to eliminate, and remediating it is an expensive, exhaustive, and tentative chore. When PFAS was detected in Martha’s Vineyard’s groundwater, our commissioners voted to install an activated carbon barrier near the area of (fire-fighting foam) contamination to help filter out the chemicals. Monitoring wells will inform us of the continued safety of our ground waters (

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) created a PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid) Stewardship Program which merged an agreement among eight large chemical companies to stop producing several types of PFAS known to be toxic. But this hasn’t diminished the enthusiasm of some manufacturers to continue its production. Inhance Technologies, in Houston, Texas, is among them. A lawsuit filed by the Department of Justice, triggered by tainted drinking water in Easton, was ignored. Inhance makes 200 million fluoridated containers every year. China produces even more.

Some global leaders are taking action to reduce the problem. The European Chemical Agency is creating a plan to restrict more than 10,000 PFAS chemicals by 2040. The U.N. is working to get a resolution to reduce plastic pollution. And President Joe Biden announced plans to reduce the acceptable limits of PFAS in our drinking water to the lowest level that can be reliably measured.

While the latter is a positive first step, its merits may be far off, and tenuous at best. The initiative addresses only six of the thousands of PFAS in circulation. Only a few of these have been tested for toxicity, and others, once thought to be safe, were later revealed as hazardous ( Linda Birnbaum draws a correlation with the BPA that was found in plastic baby bottles. The cries of angry parents led manufacturers to eliminate BPA in their products, but it was replaced with other substances, some of which are turning out to be just as harmful.

What can we do?

It can be difficult navigating such a tenuous landscape. Because there is no proven way to remove PFAS from our bodies, the best form of remediation may be avoidance — when possible. Tradeoffs are inevitable in life. Dr. Birnbaum suggests we rely on common sense, identifying things that are known to have the highest concentration, and making an effort to avoid them. She mentioned that ingested PFAS is the most common way our blood levels become elevated. Her advice:

  • Avoid microwaving in plastic, because heat drives chemicals into our foods. Popcorn bags are among the worst offenders.
  • Avoid traditional nonstick cookware, which can easily transmit chemicals to our food, especially if scratched.
  • Water filtration devices can help, but even advanced systems, such as reverse osmosis, may not remove all PFAS.

Dr. Birnbaum emphasized that the “market basket” is one way to affect change. Consumers shape what manufacturers create. If consumers consistently avoid products that likely contain PFAS, manufacturers will find alternative solutions. In a world that’s filled with frozen dinner trays, fast-food wrappers, and artificial turf, the best way to create a safer environment for ourselves and future generations is through our purse strings. Making decisions to avoid potentially hazardous products, and letting manufacturers know why we are making these choices, may gradually lead to a brighter tomorrow.

Collectively, we have the power to improve our circumstances by making the decision to either turn a blind eye to toxins as they accumulate in our environment for the sake of convenience, or to rally for our good health and that of our planet. Support research to better understand our risks and the tradeoffs we face. Let’s choose to be part of the solution, not the problem, by being aware and letting our opinions be known.