Are PFAS dangerous? Let’s take a look at how this man-made chemical impacts human health
PFAS are man-made chemicals that can be found in many everyday products thanks to their ability to repel water and grease.
But recent research is showing that these substances can have significant health and environmental implications.
What are these dangers and how do they affect us? Here’s everything you need to know about these forever chemicals.
- What is PFAS?
- Are PFAS dangerous?
- Are PFAS Dangerous to Humans?
- Are PFAS harmful to the environment?
- Regulation and Policy
- What products contain PFAS?
- Safe alternatives
What is PFAS?
Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are a group of several thousand man-made chemicals that can be found in everyday products like nonstick pans, waterproof gear, cell phones, personal-care products, and food packaging.
PFAS was created in 1937 by Roy Plunkett, a 27-year-old chemist. He found that the elements carbon and fluorine would bond together to create chemicals that are strong enough to outlive him. And maybe last forever.
These compounds are nearly unbreakable and can be found in our air, water, food, and bodies. In the decades since Plunkett’s discovery, over 9000 known PFAS have been created with the carbon-fluorine bond, which then have made a wide variety of products.
These chemicals are popular for their ability to repel grease and water. They also make products resistant to heat and corrosion. You can most commonly find PFAS in food containers, like salad bowls, takeout boxes, and burger wrappers.
They are chemicals beloved in the foodservice industry, as they keep things like salad dressing and fry oil from leaking out of containers. But these substances absorb into the food we eat, causing problems many are unaware of.
Are PFAS dangerous?
We come in contact with PFAS everyday, as they are persistent in the environment. PFAS are harmful to human health and the planet, and we have been exposed to these substances for decades. It has even come to a point where they can be detected in our blood.
These dangerous chemicals accumulate in the body over time, and exposure to high levels of PFAS may lead to health issues such as reduced immune system, birth defects, and an elevated risk of cancer.
These substances also often show up in products unintentionally. Because they are so abundant in our environment, they’re almost impossible to eliminate from products entirely. This means the goal for future product creation isn’t necessarily to restrict the substances entirely, but instead avoid intentional use of PFAS.
Are PFAS dangerous to humans?
PFAS have become a significant public health concern. Exposure can be linked to a variety of health problems, including cancer, liver damage, and immune system dysfunction. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), PFAS were found in the blood of 97% of Americans.
The health effects of PFAS exposure are still being studied, but some of the most significant concerns involve:
Cancer. Some studies have linked these chemicals with an increased risk of certain types of cancer, such as kidney and testicular cancer.
Liver damage. Exposure to PFAS has been shown to increase levels of certain liver enzymes, which can indicate liver damage.
Immune system dysfunction. PFAS have been linked to reduced immune function, making it more difficult for the body to fight off infections.
Infertility and birth defects. Some studies have suggested that exposure to these substances may be associated with reduced fertility and changes in hormone levels. It may also impact fetal growth and development.
Neurobehavioural effects. They have also been linked to changes in behaviour and cognitive function, such as increased impulsivity and decreased attention span.
It’s important to note that the health effects of PFAS exposure are still being studied, and there is much that is still unknown about the full extent of their impact on human health.
PFAS is difficult to study, mainly due to its many variations. Many questions remain unanswered, therefore, reducing our exposure as much as possible is important.
Are PFAS harmful to the environment?
PFAS are also dangerous to our environment, mainly due to their persistence. They do not break down easily. These forever chemicals remain in the environment for years and accumulate in living organisms.
Research is still being done to understand the full effect of PFAS in the environment, but some of the most concerning issues include:
Water contamination. PFAS can contaminate groundwater and surface water, which can have far-reaching effects on ecosystems and human health. These chemicals can also accumulate in fish and other aquatic organisms, which we then consume.
Soil contamination. These chemicals can also accumulate in soil, where they can stay for years. They can also enter our food chain through plants and animals.
Air pollution. While they are not typically released into the air, PFAS can become airborne during manufacturing processes or when products are incinerated.
Hazardous waste. Because of their persistence and potential health risks, they are considered hazardous waste. This means that they require special handling and disposal to prevent further contamination of the environment.
These environmental concerns highlight the need for greater regulation and oversight of PFAS use and disposal.
PFAS Regulation and Policy
The regulations regarding PFAS in Canada are still new and currently only exist at the federal level in a limited capacity. At this time, only British Columbia and Ontario have regulations, while the remaining provinces and territories remain unregulated.
In 2008, Canada enacted regulations under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act (CEPA) restricting the use, sale, and import of PFOS (perfluorooctanesulfonic acid, a class of PFAS) or products containing PFOS. The exceptions to this regulation were if the substance was accidentally present or fell into one of the categories of allowable uses.
In 2022, Canada revised and proposed a new Prohibition of Certain Toxic Substances Regulation to replace the 2016 version that is currently in effect. This revised regulation would eliminate the various exemptions allowing the use, sale, or import of PFAS substances in Canada under specific circumstances.
As of now, the 2022 regulation has yet to be officially enacted.
Learn More: The Single-Use Plastic Ban Breakdown
In the US, several states have proposed legislation to limit or ban PFAS in its entirety, but not many states have implemented bans.
Maine passed a first-in-the-nation law that prohibits products made with these chemicals. This law will take effect in 2030, but as of January 1st, companies must report their PFAS uses. In 2023, California prohibited the distribution and sale of PFOS-contaminated food packaging.
Two other bills were passed that prohibits the manufacture, sale, delivery, or offer for sale of cosmetic products and textiles with intentionally added forever chemicals. Both bills will come into effect in 2025.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has the authority to set enforceable natural regulations for drinking water contaminants, but has yet to set binding standards regarding PFAS. As for food packaging, the FDA regulates these substances in food contact products, but currently does not set maximum allowed limits of PFAS.
What products are PFAS typically found in?
It’s next to impossible to avoid PFAS without regulations coming into place. But even then, these chemicals may always manage to find its way into our products, bodies, and environment, which is what makes them so dangerous.
PFAS can be found in many everyday items, like cell phone screens, guitar strings, stain guard, rainboots, and even drinking water.
Products you store in the bathroom that could contain them are products such as dental floss, moisturizers, and makeup. In the kitchen, potential products include wax paper, nonstick pans, and takeout containers.
PFAS is widespread when it comes to food packaging. Molded fiber or plastic products commonly contain the substances to protect against warping and leakage. Fry bags, sandwich wrappers, and containers are common culprits.
With the takeout and delivery industry booming over the last few years, it wouldn’t be a stretch to say that many have been exposed to PFAS due to them migrating into our food. High temperature and lengthy contact duration show an increase in food contamination, especially when it comes to salty, fatty, or acidic foods.
These forever chemicals can also turn up in the food we eat, whether or not they’re takeout. The substances end up in crops and livestock due to pesticides, contaminated water, and fertilizer.
And unfortunately, what we eat can stay in our bodies for years. Including these forever chemicals.
Alternatives that are safe for our health and environment
As studies continue to look into how dangerous PFAS are, it’s important to look for safer alternatives.
In the foodservice industry, takeout and delivery packaging tend to contain PFAS to keep grease and water from leaking. But the longer the food sits in these containers, the more likely it is to absorb PFAS.
Using PFAS-free containers is a great alternative. One option is using bagasse containers, which are made from sugarcane pulp. This pulp is fairly water resistant, and can prevent leakage. They’re also fully biodegradable and compostable.
While containers are capable of holding food without the need for grease-proof lining, there are eco-friendly and health conscious alternatives. For example, wax coatings can be used to keep containers from soaking up liquid. Beeswax, soy wax, and other natural waxes are eco-friendly, biodegradable, and compostable.
For other products, such as cosmetics, nonstick pans, and cleaning supplies, check the label to confirm whether the product is PFAS-free. If the label doesn’t tell you or there isn’t an in-depth ingredients list, a quick search or email will be able to tell you if the product was contaminated with PFAS.
Without proper regulations and a deeper understanding of these forever chemicals, ‘PFAS-free’ labels on products cannot guarantee the absence of these substances. But it does mean that they weren’t added intentionally, which reduces our exposure.