PFAs, or forever chemicals, can harm our health, particularly hormone regulation, and have received media attention for being found in clothing, pans, and food containers.
To minimize exposure and protect ourselves, we can take action. Find out how to combat the harmful effects of these chemicals by continuing to read on below.
If you’ve turned on the news or opened a newspaper recently, you may have heard of PFAs as they’ve been making quite a splash in the headlines as of late. PFAs, otherwise known as forever chemicals, can wreak havoc on our health, particularly effecting hormone regulation, and have been getting more media attention than ever for being in clothing they shouldn’t be.
From Clothing to Cookware: Understanding the Pervasive Presence of PFAs
PFAs are group of widely used chemicals that have been around since the 1940’s. They can be found in everything from water resistant clothing, to non-stick pans, to food containers.
In fact, these forever chemicals are SO prevalent that they can now be found in the bloodstreams and urine of people and animals all over the world. They’ve also made their way into our food, water, air, and soil. As such, escaping these chemicals has become nearly impossible.
We don’t have a full understanding of just how prevalent these chemicals are, exactly how harmful they are to us or the environment, how to remove them from drinking water and in general the best way to manage and dispose of them. What we do know is, however, that many PFAs can lead to long term health complications and that they have become much more prevalent than they were supposed to be or that we once knew. PFA exposure can lead to cancer, liver damage, impaired fertility, hormone disruption, asthma and thyroid disease. Just to name a few.
Unveiling the Hidden Dangers: The Threat of PFAs in Everyday Products
So what exactly are PFAs and why are they such a silent health threat lurking in our everyday lives?
Perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl make up a large group of human-made chemicals that can be found in everyday products. PFAs are used to create coatings on items that can then resist, grease, water, oil and stains. We’re all, unfortunately, familiar with PFAs and most of us use products containing these chemicals on a daily basis. PFAs can be found in yoga pants, non-stick pants, to-go containers, tap water, cleaning products, shampoo, carpets, plastic tea bags, furniture, etc. PFA’s are so common that if you were to name a completely random item in your house, chances are it would contain PFA’s. Anything that is listed as being water, stain or grease resistant is almost certainly made with PFA’s.
PFA’s are linked together by carbon and fluorine atoms, which is one the strongest bonds. It’s because of this bond that these chemicals do not break down easily over time making them virtually indestructible. This is why they’ve been coined the “forever chemical”- once they’re in our soil, water or even our bodies, they are impossible to get rid of.
There are more than 4,700 PFA’s (although the exact number is debated). They are often be found in the soil and water near where they are manufactured and can travel long distances, moving through the soil, air or by seeping into ground water. And again, since these chemicals don’t degrade very easily, it is extremely hard to contain them.
Human-made chemicals and their impact on health
PFA’s have huge health implications and even minimal amounts of these chemicals have been reported to be extremely problematic. The largest problem with PFA’s is that they are incredibly stable and don’t degrade over time. They can also accumulate in our bodies over time. Because PFA’s are so widespread and almost impossible to destroy, they can be found in the majority of humans worldwide. According to one study conducted by the US Center for Disease Control and Prevention, 98% of people have PFAs in their body.
These chemicals have long half-lives, which allows them to create persistent problems for both the environment and our health.
PFA’s are considered endocrine disruptors, meaning they disturb our hormones. They also mimic fatty acids, the building blocks of fat. Fat is key for regulating and creating necessary hormones. Some PFAs are also able to cross the blood-brain barrier and through the placenta.
In addition to being endocrine disruptors, exposure to PFA’s have been linked to:
- High cholesterol
- Low birth weight
- Decreased fertility
- Birth defects
- Cancer and tumors
- Lower breast milk supply
- Disrupted thyroid function
- Weakened immunity in children
- Kidney and liver damage
- Ulcerative colitis
- Timing of puberty
PFAs tend to settle in our blood, kidney and liver and essentially have an association with every major organ in our body. Essentially, PFAs impact every single aspect of our health.
What can you do to protect yourself from forever chemicals that are human-made?
While forever chemicals are extremely prevalent, there are actions we can take to reduce our exposure and increase our resiliency, such as drinking matcha tea daily.
Some actions to consider taking to combat harmful effects of human-made chemicals endangering your health are:
- Drink filtered water
- Use matcha, loose leaf tea, or tea using unbleached, plastic free bags
- Look for PFA free or certified non-toxic furniture, bedding, clothing
- Filter your water
- Reduce how much take out you consume
- Limit bottled water use
- Use a HEPA filter in your home
- Support your body’s natural detoxification system by eating a healthy diet and exercising regularly.
What does regulation and response on a large scale look like for PFAs?
With the knowledge of just how problematic and widely used PFAs are, a natural question is what regulations have been created around these forever chemicals.
The answer is actually quite a few. However, the biggest problem with PFAs is that if one is prohibited, the industry simply creates a different one to take its place. It can take decades to find out if that new version is better or worse and what the associated health risks may be. For example, when we realized just how dangerous BPA is, the industry removed it from plastics- Only to replace it with PFAs. We went from bad to worse and we are continuing to do that on a daily basis.
Thankfully, regulation of PFAs has bipartisan support and both sides of the aisle are trying to reduce how many PFAs we are exposed to on a daily basis. One of the reasons this is such an incredibly difficult issue, though, is that there are literally thousands of PFAs and they are regulated individually rather than as a class of chemicals. Meaning that each PFA has to be banned and regulated individually. And new ones are constantly being created. This is one of the reasons that industry professionals refer to regulating these forever chemicals as playing “whack a mole”.
As previously mentioned, however, despite these difficulties, the government is trying to regulate PFA exposure. As of February 2023, the EPA announced the availability of $2 billion to address PFA contaminates (among others) in drinking water. The EPA has also recently proposed a new bill that would prevent anyone from creating or resuming work on a PFA without complete review. Some states have also led the charge on PFA’s and have banned them from food packaging.
PFOA and PFOS, two of the most studied PFAs, have begun to be phased out by certain manufacturers. However, these chemicals are still being imported and similar replacement chemicals have been created.
The bottom line: small actions and healthy habits can make a huge difference in protecting you from these harmful chemicals
While it can feel overwhelming to think about your chemical exposure it is of vital importance. These chemicals impact every single major organ in our body and this impact cannot be ignored. At times it can feel as though we are powerless, but there are steps each of us can take to reduce how many PFAs were exposed to on a daily basis. One small action each day can lead to huge changes over time.
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National Institute of Enviornmental Health Sciences. (2023, Jan 3). Perfluoroalkyl and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS). https://www.niehs.nih.gov/health/topics/agents/pfc/index.cfm
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