It all began in 1945 when DuPont started manufacturing Teflon, a product best known for its use in non-stick cookware. One of the key ingredients in DuPont’s Teflon was C8, a toxic, man-made chemical created by 3M (Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Company). The chemicals, also known as PFAS (Perfluoroalkyl and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances), gave Teflon its non-stick properties. Today the family of fluorinated chemicals includes thousands of nonstick, stain-repellent, and waterproof compounds. They can also repel oils, remain unaffected by chemicals, and withstand temperatures of over 600°F without melting. They keep food from sticking to cookware, make clothes and carpets resistant to stains, and create more effective firefighting foam. PFAS are used in industries such as aerospace, automotive, construction, electronics, and military.
PFAS molecules are made up of a chain of linked carbon and fluorine atoms. Because the carbon-fluorine bond is one of the strongest, these chemicals do not degrade in the environment and remain in our bodies for years. In fact, scientists are unable to estimate an environmental half-life for PFAS, which is the amount of time it takes 50% of the chemical to disappear. Hence the name - “forever chemicals”.
Decades of heavy use have resulted in contamination of water, soil, and the blood of people and animals. In 2001, a huge scandal erupted after the discovery of PFAS in the drinking water of thousands of people near the DuPont plant in Parkersburg, West Virginia. A class-action lawsuit uncovered evidence DuPont knew PFAS was hazardous and had contaminated tap water but didn’t tell its workers, local communities, or environmental officials. Later, the study linked the Teflon chemicals to cancer and other diseases. The story depicted in 2018 documentary “The Devil We Know” and 2019 thriller “Dark Waters”.
How do you get exposed to PFAS?
The most notorious PFAS chemicals - PFOA (the Teflon chemical), and PFOS (an ingredient in 3M’s Scotchgard) - are called “long chain” chemicals because they contain eight carbon atoms. People are exposed to these chemicals by consuming PFAS-contaminated water or food, using products made with PFAS, or breathing air containing PFAS. Research data showed associations between PFOA exposure and high cholesterol, increased liver enzymes, decreased vaccination response, thyroid disorders, pregnancy-induced hypertension and preeclampsia, and cancer (testicular and kidney). A report by the CDC and Prevention’s National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) found PFAS in the blood of 97% of Americans.
Under pressure from the Environmental Protection Agency, long chain PFAS were phased out in the early 2000s. A more recent NHANES report suggested a reduction in blood levels of PFOS and PFOA. However, since then, the EPA and the FDA have allowed the introduction of “short chain” replacements, with six carbon atoms.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t make any difference. A 2019 Auburn University study found that short-chain PFAS are more widely detected, more persistent, and mobile in aquatic systems, and thus may pose more risks on human and ecosystem health. Some products that may contain PFAS include:
- Non-stick cookware
- Stain-resistant carpets, upholstery, and fabrics
- Water-resistant clothing
- Cleaning products
- Paints, varnishes, sealants
- Grease-resistant paper, fast food containers, microwave popcorn bags, candy wrappers, pizza boxes
- Personal care products and cosmetics
Research has suggested that exposure to PFOA and PFOS from today’s consumer products is usually low, especially when compared to exposures to contaminated drinking water. Even so, the presence of PFAS in food-related items and cosmetics is concerning.
Examination of more than 200 beauty products found fluorine in everyday personal care items like lipstick, mascara, and foundation. Particularly high levels were detected in products commonly advertised as “wear-resistant” to water and oils or “long-lasting”. Shockingly, 88% of products tested lacked information about PFAS on their labels.
In 2020 the study conducted by an independent laboratory indicated that major food chains are still using PFAS in their food packaging. Nearly half of all food packaging samples tested positive for fluorine above the screening level, including fast-food favorites such as McDonald’s Big Mac, Burger King’s Whopper, and Sweetgreen’s salads and warm bowls.
The number of new PFAS chemicals appears to be increasing, and the full scale of exposure is difficult to assess. PFAS chemicals never occur alone; they are present in complex mixtures within products, the environment, and people. To protect public health and the environment, PFAS chemicals should be assessed and regulated, not one by one, but as a class.
And while the federal government is dragging its feet on addressing the PFAS crisis, what can you do to protect yourself? You can’t really avoid PFAS knowing that they’re, well, everywhere. But you can reduce your exposure to PFAS chemicals in drinking water and consumer products.
What can you do to protect your health and the environment
Contaminated drinking water is the major source of PFAS exposure. If your water supply is contaminated (check the Tap Water Database), consider installing a high-quality water filter. Under-the-sink reverse osmosis and two-stage filters are the most effective. They can remove about 94% of chemicals.
Try your best to avoid non-stick pots and pans, especially if they do not say “PFAS-Free”. We suggest opting for cast iron, ceramic, or steel pans. Some PFAS-free alternatives use nanoscale ceramic-like materials to make their pans non-stick.
When shopping for carpets, furniture, and waterproof clothes, look into non-fluorinated options. The Green Science Policy institute created a list of PFAS-free brands and items for your reference.
Choose beauty products created with simple natural ingredients. To make it easier, stick with trusted retailers like Credo Beauty. All their brand partners are PFAS-free.
AKT Therapy's skincare collection is clean, luxurious, non-toxic, and helps protect skin from the sun and the elements
The UN unanimously approved an international ban on around 150 PFOA-based substances, and the European Union has done the same. However, some countries have not fully agreed to the ban. Consider avoiding water-resistant products that are manufactured in those countries.
Written by Elena Popkova