Americans are Regularly Exposed to Toxic PFAS Chemicals

Gina-Marie Cheeseman

From those handy Teflon pans we once used, to carpet, furniture, clothing and more, Americans are unwittingly exposed to a dangerous family of toxic chemicals

Do you remember the Teflon-coated pans we used to use? Although handy, they are made with toxic chemicals.

The chemicals used to make Teflon coated pans are called per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). They are a group of chemicals that have been made and used around the world since the 1940s.Two groups of PFAS, PFOS and PFOA, are “very persistent in the environment and in the human body,” according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). In other words, they do not break down and they tend to accumulate. Studies show that PFAS exposure can affect human health.

How you are exposed

There are a number of ways that you are exposed to PFAS chemicals. Two of those ways are through old pans and old furniture. PFOA was once used by DuPont to make Teflon and PFOS was used to make 3M’s Scotchgard. Both chemicals were phased out, and the manufacture, use and importation of both chemicals are banned in the U.S. However, if people still use old pans and furniture, they are continuing to be exposed to PFOA and PFOS

Although two PFAS are banned in the U.S., there are still other PFAS chemicals legal in the country. That means that people are still regularly exposed to food packaged in PFAS-containing materials, food processed with equipment that used PFAS, and food grown in PFAS-contaminated soil or water. There are other household products that contain PFAS including polishes, waxes, paints, and cleaning products. People can also be exposed to PFAS through their workplace, such as production facilities or industries that use PFAS, which include chrome plating, manufacturing or oil recovery.

Some Drinking water systems in the U.S. are contaminated with PFOA and PFOS. In 2018, an Environmental Working Group (EWG) analysis found that over 1,500 drinking water systems in the country are contaminated with the two chemicals. EWG analyzed testing conducted by the EPA from 2013 to 2015. The results of the EPA tests were never made public. The analysis found that 28 percent of the water utilities it tested contained PFAS chemicals at concentrations at or above five parts per trillion (PPT). The percentage of samples with PFAS contaminated almost doubled when analyzed down to 2.5 ppt.

The health effects of PFAS exposure

PFAS chemicals are linked to a slew of health effects. PFOA and PFOS are linked to cancer, thyroid disease, weakened immunity and other health problems. Studies found that those two chemicals can cause reproductive and developmental issues, along with liver and kidney and immunological effects in laboratory animals. They have caused tumors in animals. Both can also cause low infant birth weights. PFOS is linked to thyroid hormone disruption, while PFOA is linked to cancer.

What government and industry can do

Policies are needed to restrict PFAS. The Washington state legislature passed two new laws. One of the laws prohibits PFAS in paper food wrappers, if safer alternatives are available. The other law restricts PFAS use in firefighting foams. Washington State also published an interim Chemical Action Plan in 2018. A handful of states, including New Jersey, Minnesota, and Michigan, have set drinking water standards to protect people from PFAS contamination in water. San Francisco passed an ordinance in 2018 banned PFAS chemicals in food packaging.

Manufacturers and retailers need to create chemicals policies eliminating PFAS in any products they make and sell, and replace them with safer alternatives.

What you can do

There are things you can do to reduce your exposure to PFAS chemicals. You can be careful of food packaging. Greasy or oily packaged and fast foods may contain grease-repellant coatings that have PFAS chemicals. Microwave popcorn bags and pizza boxes may also contain PFAS chemicals.

Another thing you can do is avoid stain-resistance treatments. Pick furniture and carpets that are not labeled as “stain-resistant” and do not have finishing treatments like Stainmaster applied. Do not buy clothing, shoes, luggage, and camping and sporting equipment treated to be water or stain resistant. Be careful with personal-care products. Do not use personal-care products whose labeling includes the words “fluoro” or “perfluoro”.

There is something else you can do. Sign the EWG petition asking the Senate to support the PFAS Action Act of 2019 which would designate the chemicals as hazardous substances under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act of 1980.