What do non-stick pans, firefighting foam, microwave popcorn bags, cleaning products, fast food containers and wrappers, cosmetics, and stain-resistant carpets have in common? They all may contain forever chemicals called PFAS.
PFAS is the acronym for a diverse group of man-made chemicals called Per- and Poly-FluoroAlkyl Substances, mainly used as waterproof and non-stick coatings, degreasers, and fire retardants. PFAS can enter the body by ingesting contaminated food or water, or by breathing in PFAS released during manufacturing or other industrial processes. Once in the body, PFAS collect and stay in the cells of animals and people for a long time and they can build up to toxic levels if there is enough exposure to PFAS pollution.
Due to decades of global PFAS use and their long-lived nature, these chemicals have now spread worldwide. These persistent chemicals are found in the environment and organisms of even the most remote areas of our planet. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that 97-98% of the US population may have detectable levels of PFAS in their blood.
Areas surrounding facilities that have used PFAS in their manufacturing for many decades have among the highest concentrations of PFAS contamination in the water and soil, including locations in NY. Exposure to toxic levels of certain PFAS can lead to liver damage, thyroid disease, decreased fertility, reproductive and developmental effects, high cholesterol, decreased immune response, obesity, hormone suppression, and even certain types of cancer.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) continues to review the toxicity of individual PFAS compounds to determine exposure limits for them as part of their overall PFAS Strategic Roadmap. EPA developed its first-ever air sampling technique in early 2021, called the Other Test Method-45 (OTM-45), which can measure PFAS levels in air. This new technique is expected to be an important tool for facilities and regulators to ensure that airborne PFAS are not being released from facilities at concerning levels.
Although some of the legacy PFAS compounds are being replaced with less persistent PFAS, many of these compounds are still found in everyday household items. While totally preventing exposure to PFAS would be very difficult, given the extent of their continued and historical use and environmental contamination, you can still take steps to reduce your exposure.
Look for PFAS-Free cookware when it’s time to replace old, scratched, non-stick pots and pans. Instead of pre-packaged microwave popcorn, make your own by popping plain kernels in a paper bag or using an air popper. Making educated choices in our daily lives will help protect not only your health but also the health of our air and environment.
Photo of firefighter provided by DEC.