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The Silent Killer Chemical

Forever chemicals polluting the world

Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are a large group of man-made chemicals that have been used in industry and consumer products worldwide since the 1950s. These chemicals are known for their resistance to water, oil and heat, which has made them useful in a variety of applications.

However, their persistence in the environment (hence the name “forever chemicals”) and their adverse effects on human health have raised significant concerns.

Find out where PFAS are found, how they can damage your health, and steps you can take to minimise your exposure risk.

What are PFAS chemicals?

PFAS are a group of over 5,000 chemicals that include substances like perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS). Another example is GenX, a   replacement for PFOA which is used in the production of non-stick coatings. These compounds are highly stable due to the strong carbon-fluorine bonds, which make them resistant to degradation. This stability is a double-edged sword: while it makes PFAS effective for industrial applications, it also means they persist in the environment and accumulate over time.

When checking product labels, look for terms like “fluorinated,” “PTFE,” “fluoro,” or specific chemical names such as the ones mentioned above. Awareness of these alternative names can help you avoid PFAS-containing products and reduce your exposure.

Where are PFAS found?

PFAS are ubiquitous in modern life and can be found in a wide range of products, including:

  • Non-stick cookware and utensils. PFOA was commonly used in the production of Teflon. While Teflon no longer uses PFOA, it may still contain other types of PFAS.
  • Water-repellent fabrics used in outdoor gear, stain-resistant fabrics and water-resistant clothing (brands like Gore-Tex) contain PFAS.
  • Food packaging – fast food wrappers, microwave popcorn bags, sandwich wraps, pizza boxes and other grease-resistant food packaging often contain PFAS to prevent oil and grease from soaking through.
  • Firefighting foams: PFAS are a key component in aqueous film-forming foams (AFFF) used to extinguish flammable liquid fires. These foams are commonly used at airports, military bases and in firefighting training exercises.
  • Cosmetics and personal care products like foundation, mascara, shaving cream and certain types of dental floss contain PFAS for their water-resistant properties.
  • Camping tents, shoes, leather products and stain resistant clothing contain PFAS because these chemicals provide durable water and stain repellence, making the products more resistant to environmental elements and extending their lifespan.
  • Household products such as in cleaning products (especially stain treatments for furniture and carpet), water-resistant sealants and some paints also contain PFAS.
  • Industrial processes, including electroplating and textiles manufacturing use PFAS and they are also used as lubricants in machinery.

Health consequences of PFAS exposure

The persistence of PFAS in the environment and their ability to accumulate in the human body raise several health concerns. They have been linked with a variety of adverse health effects, including:

Hormonal disruption: PFAS can disrupt thyroid hormone levels, crucial for growth and metabolism, and also interfere with hormone functions, potentially leading to reproductive and developmental issues. Studies indicate that pregnant women exposed to PFAS may experience complications like preeclampsia and reduced foetal growth. Offspring of exposed mothers are more at risk of developmental delays and learning difficulties, as PFAS can transfer from mother to baby during pregnancy and breastfeeding.

Impaired immune function and increased susceptibility to infections. PFAS have shown to interfere with the immune system’s ability to produce antibodies, making individuals more vulnerable to diseases.

Increased cancer risk. There is a correlation between PFAS exposure and a higher risk of certain types of cancer such as kidney and testicular cancer. This is why the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has classified PFOA as potentially carcinogenic to humans. Epidemiological studies have found higher rates of these cancers in communities with high PFAS exposure.

Liver toxicity and damage. Elevated liver enzymes (a sign of potential liver damage) have been observed in people exposed to high levels of PFAS. Chronic exposure may lead to liver disease, including non-alcoholic fatty liver disease.

Metabolic disorders such as diabetes and obesity are linked to PFAS exposure, with evidence suggesting increased cholesterol levels and a heightened risk of obesity among those with higher PFAS levels. It is also associated with insulin resistance, a precursor to type 2 diabetes.

How to reduce your exposure to PFAS

Given the widespread presence of PFAS, complete avoidance is challenging, but there are steps you can take to minimise your exposure:

  • Avoid using non-stick cookware. Look for cookware labelled as PFAS-free or opt for alternatives like stainless steel, cast iron or ceramic cookware which do not contain these toxic chemicals.
  • Some air fryers may contain PFAS due to non-stick coatings like Teflon. However, many manufacturers now offer PFAS-free alternatives, using ceramic or other safe non-stick materials. Read product descriptions, look for PFAS-free labels, consult reviews and contact manufacturers if necessary.
  • Stay away from pre-packaged and processed foods as they often come in packaging that contains PFAS. Preparing fresh, whole foods at home mitigates your risk and also boosts nutrition.
  • Choose untreated fabrics for your carpets and upholstery and avoid fabrics marketed as stain-resistant or water-repellent as they will contain PFAS.
  • Select natural or organic cleaning products that do not contain PFAS or make your own cleaning products using lemon, vinegar and bicarb soda.
  • Read labels of personal care products and avoid cosmetics, lotions and other personal care products that list ingredients like PTFE or “fluoro” in their names. Use resources such as the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep database to research brands and find PFAS-free personal care products.
  • Filter your water with a water filter designed to remove PFAS from drinking water. Activated carbon filters and reverse osmosis systems are effective options.

Avoid these toxic chemicals

PFAS are a pervasive group of chemicals with significant implications for human health and the environment. Understanding where they are found and how they can impact your health is crucial for making informed choices. By taking steps to reduce exposure you can mitigate the risks associated with these persistent chemicals.

Learn more about other potential toxins lurking in your home:

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Blog/Article content reflects the author's research and diverse opinions, not necessarily CNM's views. Items may not be regularly updated, so represent the best available understanding at the time of publication.

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