Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are a group of thousands of human-made chemicals that are widely used — and pretty amazing. They repel water, grease, and oil and are resistant to heat, making them perfect for use in such products as nonstick pans and food packaging, camping gear, cosmetics, and stain repellants for carpet and upholstery.
These compounds were first used in consumer and industrial products in the 1950s, and their uses have only expanded over the years. Today they are ubiquitous, found in everything from eye shadow to metal plating.
But to scientists who study human health, PFAS have a dark side.
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“I don’t have anything good from a health perspective to say about them,” says Elsie Sunderland, professor of environmental science and engineering at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and the Harvard Paulson School of Engineering. “These compounds are basically a complete nightmare. They have been associated with a whole slate of terrible health effects.”
One of the biggest problems with PFAS is the same thing that makes them so useful — they don’t break down, which is why they are often referred to as “forever chemicals.”
“That persistence seems great until a chemical enters the human body or sits in the environment,” says Sunderland.
Health effects of PFAS
While many chemicals pose health risks, PFAS seem to be unusually dangerous because of how broadly they affect the human body. Experts have noted health effects related to PFAS in every major organ system, says Sunderland.
For example, PFAS can disrupt the body’s metabolism, potentially contributing to health problems such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and obesity. These compounds might even impair a person’s ability to lose weight or to breastfeed. PFAS exposure has been linked to thyroid disease, liver damage, and kidney damage, as well as certain cancers. The chemicals also appear to harm the immune system, and they may be a factor in the rise in autoimmune disease, along with asthma and allergy disorders, Sunderland says. In children, this immunotoxicity may be even more serious than it is in adults, because it’s during childhood that the immune system undergoes important programming. Suppression of the immune system can inhibit children’s response to routine vaccination or make them more susceptible to a virus.
Understanding the threat
Companies continue to use PFAS because they are powerful and profitable, says Sunderland. This is despite the fact that a number of lawsuits have uncovered evidence that some of these companies have known for decades — even before academic researchers started looking into PFAS — that these compounds present health risks, says Sunderland.
Drinking PFAS-contaminated water is the main way people living in communities with large PFAS sources are exposed to these compounds, says Sunderland. Large PFAS sources are typically airports, military bases, chemical manufacturing sites, and industries that use PFAS in their production processes.
“PFAS may be released into the surrounding environment in water or land or may be volatile and released from smokestacks to the atmosphere, where they can be redeposited in rainwater to surrounding regions and dispersed over large areas,” says Sunderland.
In a 2020 paper, the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit activist organization, reported that between 18 million and 80 million people are exposed to drinking water levels of PFAS that exceed 10 parts per trillion, which is in the same range as the maximum contaminant levels being developed by many states. In another study, scientists from the same group found PFAS in drinking water in all but one of 44 samples taken across the country from 31 states and Washington, D.C. They found PFAS levels ranging from one part per trillion to 186 parts per trillion in numerous major metropolitan areas, including Miami, Philadelphia, New Orleans, Boston, and a New York City suburb in New Jersey. Harvard researchers have proposed a maximum exposure limit for PFAS of one part per trillion, based on levels that may lead to immunotoxicity in children, says Sunderland.
Once these chemicals enter the water system, they also make their way into the ocean where they pollute sea life, including fish.
|PFAS in food?European regulators have found contamination with per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in many foods, including fish, fruit, and eggs, according to the European Food Safety Authority. Is the U.S. food supply also at risk?The FDA says that the threat of contamination is low, based on testing that has been done so far. The FDA did find PFAS in some of the fish samples it tested, including cod and tilapia, but concluded that there is no evidence as yet that supports advising people to avoid eating particular types of foods.However, Elsie Sunderland, professor of environmental science and engineering at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, says that current testing methods could be falling short. The number of products tested by the FDA was small, and it wasn’t clear how those products were selected or where they came from. She and other experts are hoping to see expanded testing along with an assessment of systematic exposure in the U.S. population to get a better picture of overall risk.|
Bringing about change
The federal government doesn’t currently regulate PFAS levels in drinking water, although it has made some recent moves in that direction. “[Government officials] are rushing to establish a limit now that the administration has changed at the federal level,” says Sunderland.
In the absence of federal rules related to PFAS, individual states have taken the lead to rein in PFAS use. In July 2021, Maine adopted an emergency measure that would ban all PFAS from products sold in the state by 2030, with limited exceptions. Other states have adopted more limited restrictions. For example, in October 2020, Massachusetts capped the amount of six different PFAS that can be found in the public drinking water supply.
To truly protect the public from the health risks related to PFAS, federal regulators need to step in, Sunderland says. But federal measures to protect people from the dangers of PFAS are likely a ways off, she says. Part of the problem is that there are so many of these chemicals that it can be difficult for regulators to keep up.
Right now, what’s happening is that when a state regulates a problematic chemical, companies pivot and use a different one from the same class that may present similar — but as yet unknown — health risks. Substituting new compounds also makes it hard for scientists to detect them in products, because they don’t know what they’re looking for, says Sunderland.
“It’s like playing chemical whack-a-mole,” she says. The goal, instead, should be to regulate these chemicals as a class, as Maine did, says Sunderland.
Reducing your risk
While regulators sort out the issues related to PFAS, there are some lifestyle changes you can make to help protect yourself in the meantime.
“I think trying to minimize your exposure through easy changes can be effective,” says Sunderland. Here are some strategies you can use.
Filter your drinking water. While not everyone can afford to purchase a water filter, even simple, less expensive ones do a surprisingly good job of removing PFAS chemicals from drinking water. “So definitely filter your water if you can,” she says.
Accept a little bit of mess. Because PFAS are commonly found in carpet and furniture protectants, it’s best to avoid using these products. Whenever possible, look for carpets and furniture that are free from these chemicals. Your couch and carpet may have a few more stains, but the trade-off may be better long-term health.
Dust and vacuum regularly. If you do have products, such as furniture, fabrics, or carpets, that contain PFAS in your home, you might be exposed to these compounds when you inhale dust that sheds from these items. Dusting and vacuuming regularly can minimize the number of contaminants that you breathe.
Look for safer products. Today many manufacturers make a point of promoting PFAS-free products in their advertising to meet increasing consumer demand. When shopping for products that often contain PFAS, such as camping gear, cleaning products, or personal care products, look specifically for those that are PFAS-free. The Environmental Working Group offers tools on its website, www.ewg.org, to help you see what chemicals are in various personal care products and make a more informed choice about what you’re using.
Pare down. Limiting the number of products you use, particularly cosmetics, can also help reduce your exposure. Decide which items are most important and stop using the ones that don’t make the list.
Choose natural foods with less packaging. People with the highest levels of PFAS in their systems are those who eat a lot of processed, fast foods, says Sunderland. Packaging often contains PFAS; choosing unpackaged, less processed items can help. For example, swap microwave popcorn for plain kernels you can pop in a pan on your stove.
Bible verses for today’s meditation and inspiration: Matthew E. McLaren
Yours, Lord, is the greatness and the power and the glory and the majesty and the splendor, for everything in heaven and earth is yours. Yours, Lord, is the kingdom; you are exalted as head over all. 1 Chronicles 29:11 NIV
Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength. Mark 12:30 NIV
Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen. Ephesians 3:20-21 NIV
So he said to me, “This is the word of the Lord to Zerubbabel: ‘Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit,’ says the Lord Almighty.” Zechariah 4:6 NIV
For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. 1 Corinthians 1:18 NIV
For who is God besides the Lord? And who is the Rock except our God? Psalm 18:31 NIV
It was not by their sword that they won the land, nor did their arm bring them victory; it was your right hand, your arm, and the light of your face, for you loved them. Psalm 44:3 NIV
For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse. Romans 1:20 NIV
For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form, and in Christ you have been brought to fullness. He is the head over every power and authority. Colossians 2:9-10 NIV
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