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Why PFAS are Toxic ‘Forever Chemicals’ and How to Avoid Them

PFAS, or perfluoroalkyl substances, are a group of toxic chemicals used in manufacturing and on everyday household items that have recently been linked to a variety of health concerns. Due to their widespread use for decades prior to evaluating their safety, they are now found in elevated levels in food, water, air, and even in the human body. PFAS can affect hormones, reproductive health, the liver, and gut microbiome. They are also known to be carcinogenic. Fortunately, there are ways to reduce your exposure to PFAS, though eliminating them from the environment may not be so simple. Let's learn why these substances are called "forever chemicals" and the most common places where they're often hiding in your daily life.

What are PFAS and why are they called forever chemicals?

Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances are a family of approximately 5,000 synthetic chemicals whose common use is to make countless everyday products water-, grease, and stain-resistant since the 1950s. Because they're so versatile, PFAS are widely used in cookware, food packaging, household furnishings, clothing, and even toiletries like dental floss.

The problem with this widespread use is that exposure to PFAS is linked to serious health problems, including cancer, liver disease, immunotoxicity, birth defects, and others.

Their resistance to breakdown in the natural environment resulted in the nickname "forever chemicals". And new data show they've made their way into foods and drinking water, now detected in 455 California drinking water sources thus far. Virtually all Americans have PFAS in their bodies (1). 

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PFAS are linked to cancer, reproductive harm

Early versions of these chemicals, known as perfluorooctane sulfonic acid (PFOS) and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), are linked to cancer, high cholesterol, birth defects, immune system dysfunction, and other serious health effects. They're also considered harmful at low parts per trillion, which is another concern (2).

While these two older chemicals have been voluntarily phased out by most manufacturers, their resistance to breakdown means they remain in water supplies, soil, food, and air for decades. And though some versions of PFAS aren't used anymore, scientists suspect that newer formulations of PFAS are toxic and equally persistent in the environment.

Because PFAS chemicals don't break down over time, even if we stopped all use of them today, they would still be present in our environment for generations.

Studies have linked PFAS chemicals to (3):

  • Testicular and kidney cancer
  • Weakened vaccine response
  • Low birth weight
  • Endocrine disruption
  • Pre-eclampsia
  • Increased cholesterol
  • Thyroid disease

Exposures to some PFAS in utero are associated with adverse outcomes for both mother and baby, such as hypertensive disorders of pregnancy (HDP), including preeclampsia, and low birth weight (4).

Read: Understanding the Link Between Toxic Burden & Immune Health

The most common places you encounter PFAS

The highest proportion of PFAS exposure usually comes from food and drink, and the following:

  • Fish and shellfish raised in waters contaminated with PFAS.
  • Coating the inside of food packaging like microwave popcorn, fast food containers, and pizza boxes.
  • Water sources, including public water and well water systems
  • Contaminated soil

In a study of 41 Norwegian women, researchers found that food is typically the dominant exposure pathway, although the indoor environment (dust, air) could account for up to about 50% of the total PFAS intake (5). 

Related: How Toxins Affect Your Weight & How to Improve Detox

Does the dose make the poison?

Some food additives and other preservatives are generally recognized as safe at low concentrations. PFAS however, doesn't appear to fit into this same category. The EPA now warns that PFOA and PFOS are harmful to human health even at levels that are nearly undetectable (6).

Troublingly, exposure varies greatly from region to region, with some areas dealing with levels in their water supply that at one point exceeded 1,500 ppt (7). Findings indicate that some negative health effects may occur with concentrations of PFOA or PFOS in water that are near zero. 

In a press release on June 15th, 2022, the EPA released updated advisory levels for PFOA and PFOS, which are 0.004 ppt and 0.02 ppt, respectively. This is much lower than the EPA's initial recommendation of 70 ppt for both in 2016 (8).

Shop Integrative Detox Solutions, like Metagenics Clear Change. 

PFAS-contaminated drinking water is a significant source of exposure

Drinking water has been identified as a substantial source of PFAS exposure for many populations, particularly those living near contaminated sites.

Like the town of Chincoteague, Virginia, which was the site of extensive fire training operations in the late 1970's and into the 80s, in which materials used contained high levels of PFAS. These compounds ultimately contaminated much of the groundwater (9). 

Can IV therapy improve detox function? Read more.

Can PFAS be removed from drinking water?

In the case of the town above, NASA installed a groundwater treatment system using granular activated carbon (GAC), a proven technology for removing PFAS.

Water filters that contain a form of granular activated carbon, or reverse osmosis are effective to reduce the levels of PFAS drinking water.

The current administration proposed a PFAS “roadmap” to set a drinking water standard for PFOA and PFOS by 2023, and take steps to restrict industrial releases of PFAS into the air and water. The roadmap sets timelines by which EPA plans to take specific actions and commits to new policies to safeguard public health and protect the environment.

Read: Remove Everyday Toxins to Fight Inflammation

Want to learn more?

Should I have my doctor test for PFAS?

If you’re concerned about the possible health effects from exposure to PFAS in the environment, you’re likely wondering if you should seek testing. This is a valid concern, however, testing levels of PFAS in the body likely doesn’t provide valuable insight. There are also few laboratories in the U.S. capable of testing for PFAS exposure.

Instead, your doctor may recommend liver, kidney, gut function analysis, or cholesterol testing to evaluate your health in a more effective way.

And, since there is not a treatment to remove PFAS from the body, testing your levels is likely to be less effective than working to reduce your environmental exposure.

Now is a great time to make an appointment with your CentreSpringMD provider to stay up-to-date with preventative screenings.

How to avoid PFAS

Use stainless steel or cast iron cookware

Avoid non-stick cookware, even if it says ‘PFOA-Free’. When heated at high temperatures, PFAS-containing cookware produces fumes that are potent enough to cause flu-like symptoms in sensitive people. PFOA-free labels may also just mean that  PFOA was replaced by another type of PFAS compound, since there are thousands. Stainless steel and cast iron cookware are great alternatives. *Replacing cookware can be expensive and time-consuming. With this in mind, make changes as you can, and in the meantime, cook on a lower heat setting to reduce some of the transfer of PFAS.

Make popcorn from scratch 

Microwave popcorn bags, even if labeled organic or non-GMO, usually have PFAS coatings on the inside that transfer onto the kernels when popped. Instead, homemade popcorn is easy! Buy loose popping corn, and pop it on the stove—preferably in a stainless steel pan—with your choice of seasonings.

Bring your own container for to-go food  

If you’re really serious about avoiding PFAS and you typically eat out a lot, consider bringing your own glass or metal container to store your leftovers. To-go containers and fast food wrappers are made leak- and grease-resistant with PFAS compounds.  

Look for non-flame retardant furniture and bedding  

Household furniture, carpets, and mattresses are a common route of exposure to PFAS compounds, and other carcinogens like formaldehyde. These are used as flame-retardants, or to make fabric wrinkle- or static-resistant. Certifications to look for include: 

  • GOTS (material is grown without the use of harmful chemicals)
  • OEKO-TEX (free from certain chemicals including formaldehyde)
  • Made Safe (made without chemicals that are known or suspected to harm human health)

Steer clear of PTFE in product labels 

Avoid products, including cosmetics, paints, products, and household items, that have PTFE or “perfluor” in the ingredient list. 

Filter your drinking water

Until water treatment to remove PFAS is adopted by more states and local municipalities, you can remove PFAS chemicals from your home drinking water with a reverse osmosis or granular activated carbon (GAC) water filter.

What’s being done to remove ‘forever chemicals’ from the environment?

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) set a federal “health advisory” level for PFAS in June of 2022. However, there is no official regulation for PFAS in drinking water, though some states have taken it upon themselves to proactively put measures into place to remove these chemicals from drinking water and the environment.

Your local water system should have reports detailing water quality and contaminants available to you so you can review the most recent water testing results. If you have a private water well, it’s also important to learn which tests are recommended to ensure your well water is safe to drink. 

Protect your health from toxin exposure

It can seem daunting to try and avoid PFAS, as they’re everywhere, but there are some simple things you can do to limit your exposure. Filter your water, use stainless steel or cast iron cookware, and takeout less often. These measures may not completely eliminate your risk of exposure to these harmful compounds, but they will help reduce the number of toxins you ingest on a daily basis. By taking a few small steps, you can protect yourself and your loved ones from the dangers of PFAS.

Work with a qualified, integrative provider today to evaluate environmental toxins, heavy metals, and other possible exposure that can often go undetected for years. Schedule an appointment today!

Resources 

  1. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6380916/
  2. https://www.nrdc.org/stories/forever-chemicals-called-pfas-show-your-food-clothes-and-home
  3. https://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/pfas/health-effects/index.html
  4. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7530144/
  5. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/21334069/
  6. https://www.consumerreports.org/water-quality/even-extremely-low-levels-of-pfas-in-drinking-water-unsafe-a1147585461/
  7. /https://www.ewg.org/news-insights/news-release/2022/02/usgs-detects-forever-chemicals-16-states-water-wells
  8. https://www.govinfo.gov/content/pkg/FR-2022-06-21/pdf/2022-13158.pdf  
  9. https://www.nasa.gov/feature/background-latest-information-on-pfas-at-nasa-wallops/

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