PFAS, or poly- and perfluoroalkyl substances, have become notorious as drinking water contaminants as a result of industrial releases and use of firefighting foam. But they are used in a wide range of products, from food packaging to stain-resistant furniture, and our exposure comes from multiple sources and routes.
With their remarkable persistence and mobility—they are not known to break down in the environment and they move through soil to drinking water—PFAS have become global pollutants that threaten the health of people and wildlife.
What products contain PFAS?
Many products are made with these compounds, including:
- food packaging, such as microwave popcorn bags and fast food wrappers;
- stain-resistant carpets, rugs, and furniture;
- non-stick cookware;
- outdoor gear with a “durable water repellent” coating;
- aerospace, medical, and automotive applications; and
- many specialty items such as firefighting foams, ski wax, and industrial applications.
We are exposed to PFAS in food, from indoor air and dust, and in some cases, from drinking water. Food, air, and water have become contaminated globally as a result of manufacturing releases and use of PFAS-containing products.
- Food: PFAS can build up in crops, fish, and livestock, ultimately contaminating the food we eat. In addition, when PFAS are used in food packaging such as sandwich wrappers and takeout containers, they migrate to our food.
- Indoor air and dust: When PFAS are used in products such as stainproofing for furniture and carpets, or waterproofing for clothing, these items become “PFAS factories,” releasing the chemicals over time into air and dust.
- Drinking water: Initial testing of some water systems in 2013-2015 revealed an estimated six million U.S. residents with drinking water supplies contaminated with PFAS above safety levels set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). This number is increasing as more contamination is discovered almost weekly. In 2018, the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry issued a draft report suggesting safety levels for PFAS 6 times lower than those used by EPA, meaning more communities may have PFAS levels in their water that are a concern for health. In most areas, use of firefighting foam and manufacturing appear to be the pollution sources.
- Home and workplace products: PFAS use in cleaners, personal care products, and specialty products such as ski wax can lead to direct exposure from product use.
PFAS are extremely persistent in the environment, and some of them build up in people and animals. They migrate out of consumer products into household dust and air, are released by industries, and contaminate drinking water and food. Once they are in our bodies, they stick around—with half-lives in people of up to eight years.
Exposure to these compounds has been linked to a number of health concerns:
- Cancer: PFAS induce tumors in laboratory animals, and the International Agency for Research on Cancer has designated PFOA as a possible carcinogen based on epidemiological evidence linking exposure to kidney and testicular cancer.
- Hormone disruption: laboratory tests indicate numerous PFAS affect hormone production and response, with effects on estrogen production and response, thyroid hormone signalling, and on receptors involved in regulation of fat metabolism. People exposed to higher levels of PFAS have higher total and LDL cholesterol.
- Liver and kidney toxicity: PFAS are associated with multiple effects on liver and kidney, including liver lesions, kidney degeneration, and damage to liver function.
- Harm to the immune system: research has identified the immune system as sensitive to PFAS in both laboratory and epidemiological studies. A 2012 study of 587 children found those with greater exposure to PFAS had significantly poorer responses to vaccines.
- Reproductive and developmental toxicity: Laboratory tests associated PFAS exposure with decreased survival of young, disrupted reproductive cycles, and impaired growth of the uterus and ovaries. In addition, a number of large epidemiological studies have related higher maternal exposure to PFCs to lower birth weight.
Nearly every U.S. resident has PFAS in his or her body, with biomonitoring studies finding PFAS in blood, breast milk, umbilical cord blood, amniotic fluid, placenta, and other tissues.
PFAS have been detected in drinking water all over the United States, including in Washington, and in both fresh and saltwater.
Nationally, the Environmental Protection Agency sampled public water systems around the country for six PFAS, among other unregulated contaminants, beginning in 2013. PFAS were detected in water from three Washington state water systems, serving more than 100,000 households.
The Washington State Department of Ecology sampled freshwater in Washington in 2008, finding PFAS in all water samples and elevated concentrations in water bodies impacted by wastewater treatment plant effluent. University of Washington scientists sampled 15 saltwater and four freshwater Puget Sound locations between 2009 and 2011, detecting PFAS in all samples with the highest concentrations at sites near urban areas.
PFAS have been produced, used, and disposed of essentially without regulation for the last half-century, but state and local governments have started to take action.
- In 2018, the Washington State Legislature passed two new laws, banning PFAS in food packaging and firefighting foam.
- Washington State published an interim Chemical Action Plan in 2018, and is continuing a process to address all sources of PFAS exposure.
- San Francisco passed an ordinance in 2018 banning PFAS in food packaging.
- Many manufacturers are successfully producing alternatives to PFAS in food packaging, firefighting foam, and other products.
- Several states, including New Jersey, Minnesota, and Michigan, have set drinking water standards to protect residents from PFAS in water.
States and local governments can continue to take the lead in passing policies to restrict PFAS. In addition, manufacturers and retailers should establish chemicals policies that eliminate PFAS in products they produce and sell, replacing them with safer alternatives.
- Avoid stain-resistance treatments. Choose furniture and carpets that aren’t marketed as “stain-resistant,” and don’t apply finishing treatments such as Stainmaster® to these or other items. Where possible, choose alternatives to clothing that has been treated for water or stain resistance, such as outerwear and sportswear. Other products that may be treated include shoes, luggage, and camping and sporting equipment.
- Watch for packaged foods. Stay away from greasy or oily packaged and fast foods, as the packages often contain grease-repellent coatings. Examples include microwave popcorn bags and fast-food wrappers.
- Check your personal-care products. Avoid personal-care products made with Teflon™ or containing ingredients that include the words “fluoro” or ”perfluoro.” PFCs can be found in dental floss and a variety of cosmetics, including nail polish, facial moisturizers, and eye make-up.
- Avoid Teflon™ or non-stick cookware. If you choose to continue using non-stick cookware, be careful not to let it heat to above 450ºF. Do not leave non-stick cookware unattended on the stove, or use non-stick cookware in hot ovens or grills. Discard products if non-stick coatings show signs of deterioration.