Explainer: What are toxic PFAS ‘forever chemicals,’ and how do they affect our health?

The more these chemicals are used, the more they build up and the bigger the threat they pose.

 

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Some chemicals that are found in everyday household items can pose a threat to our health, especially when they leach out of those items and contaminate our waterways or food.

One common class of chemicals, called PFAS, is used in a variety of products including outdoor clothing, rugs, food packaging and non-stick pans. The problem is that PFAS exposure has been linked to a variety of severe health problems, including immune suppression and even cancer.

Worse still, they’re so persistent in our bodies and in the environment that they’ve been given the nickname “forever chemicals.” The more they’re used, the more they build up and the bigger the threat they pose to our health.

We’re working to protect the health of all Americans by passing laws and winning corporate commitments to reduce the use and disposal of PFAS — because it’s not worth risking our health just for a waterproof rain jacket or grease-resistant food wrapper.

Here’s a deeper look into the PFAS problem and what we can do about it.

 

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The basics

  • PFAS stands for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances. The term denotes a wide array of chemicals that have similar properties — most notably, making things greaseproof and water-resistant.
  • We come into contact with PFAS in everyday products such as household furniture, waterproof outdoor gear, greaseproof fast food packaging and non-stick cookware.
  • But it’s not just the products themselves that expose us to PFAS — it’s the factories that manufacture them as well. The mass disposal of PFAS chemicals can lead to contamination in our waterways, which puts our drinking water at risk.

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How PFAS affect us

  • The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has found these chemicals in the bodies of nearly every American it has tested.
  • PFAS tend to stick around forever, both in our environment and our bodies — hence the nickname “forever chemicals.”
  • As more research has been done to assess the effects of these chemicals on the human body, studies have linked PFAS exposure to a number of serious health issues, from birth defects to developmental problems to increased risk of kidney or testicular cancer.

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What we can do about it

  • At this point, you’ve probably put it together that if PFAS never go away, and most of us already have at least some of the stuff in our bodies, then we’re pretty much stuck with it for good. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t still reduce the risks to our health by preventing more PFAS from building up in our bodies and environment.
  • To do that, we need to eliminate the source of the contamination, which means eliminating PFAS from our products and making sure they’re disposed of properly. In 2022, we shouldn’t have to put our health in jeopardy just to keep our hands from getting greasy.
  • Our work helped convince McDonald’s to phase out PFAS-treated food packaging globally at its restaurants by 2025. Not long after, Burger King signaled its intention to follow suit.
  • On the legislative level, we’re seeing unprecedented momentum for both banning and cleaning up these toxic “forever chemicals” across the country. California, Connecticut, Maine, Minnesota, New York, Vermont and Washington have banned paper-based food packaging with PFAS. And as we work to make Florida next, we’re also urging the U.S. Senate to follow the House’s lead and pass the federal PFAS Action Act, which would limit PFAS discharged to waterways and place a moratorium on new PFAS chemicals.

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The bottom line: Restricting the use of PFAS today is a critical step in minimizing public health damage and ensuring future generations have a chance at a healthier world. And it’s support from people like you that will allow us to build on the progress we’ve made and win more protections against toxic PFAS.

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Aaron Colonnese

Content Creator, Editorial & Creative Team, The Public Interest Network

Aaron writes and designs materials with the Creative Team for The Public Interest Network for U.S. PIRG. Aaron lives in Arlington, Massachusetts, and spends his spare time playing drums and going for long walks.

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