PFAS: The Forever Chemical

Article Author: Brooke Linnehan, Molecular and Cellular Biology, M.S. student, POB Science Translator

What would you do if someone followed you around everywhere you went? Every time you got dressed in the morning, cooked yourself a meal, or put on some makeup, there was somebody there lingering around. What if you didn’t do anything interesting at all, yet they still followed you around just existing in your day-to-day life? You would probably call them a stalker and do whatever you could to make them go away. You’d be crazy not to. So, why isn’t this the way we react to chemicals that do exactly that?

Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are “forever chemicals” that don’t break down over time like other chemicals do. They linger both in the environment and in the body. They are a class of chemicals specially designed to repel both water and oils, granting them utility in stain- and water-resistant clothing, nonstick pans, food packaging, cosmetics, and countless other everyday products. For this reason, they are extremely difficult to eliminate from our bodies and the environment. They loiter indefinitely, contributing to a slew of negative health effects. 

One of the many challenges in combating the negative effects of PFAS is that the PFAS chemical class consists of thousands of different chemicals. While toxicologists and other health experts are currently researching a few dozen of these, one thing that we know for sure is that PFAS as a class, are endocrine-disrupting chemicals that interfere with hormones, which are the body’s communication system. Endocrine disrupting chemicals mimic or block normal hormone function, putting us at risk of developing hormonally-dependent health defects such as breast cancer and decreased fertility.

Another challenge in addressing PFAS is that they have a long history of use in the U.S., dating as far back as the 1930s. The full extent of the impacts of PFAS are still not fully understood. However, it is clear that these non-stick chemicals, as a class, actually stick around. The best way to limit exposure is by simply avoiding products that contain them, such as microwaveable popcorn bags, to-go food packaging, nonstick cookware, and even water resistant clothing like raincoats. Some safer alternatives would be to make popcorn the old-fashioned way on the stove, and to opt for stainless steel cookware. Investing in glass food containers, or stainless steel water bottles/coffee cups instead of using to-go packaging are some other worthwhile ways to limit PFAS exposure. Look for clothing items that are PFAS-free, such as clothing with the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) certification. By opting for safer choices, one can make a substantial difference in the levels of PFAS accumulating in the body, decreasing  the risk of developing negative health effects like breast cancer. 


Source: Renfrew, D., & Pearson, T. W. (2021). The Social Life of the “Forever Chemical”: PFAS Pollution Legacies and Toxic Events. Environment and Society, 12(1), 146-163.


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