What do pizza boxes, some dental flosses, and non-stick cooking pans have in common? They all contain chemicals known as PFAS—perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, a group of over 4,700 synthetic chemicals used since the 1940’s to make surfaces resistant to stains, grease, and water. In addition to being used in the manufacture of many household products, PFAS can be found in fire-fighting foam. PFAS chemicals are found in and around military bases where firefighting foam is used in training exercises, much to the dismay of military members and their families.
At the current time, the federal government does not regulate PFAS, but due to growing concern about the possible danger of PFAS to humans and animals, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced in February that it would begin the processing of regulating PFAS (and a similar group of synthetic chemicals known as “PFOS”) in the next two years. Some states have begun regulating PFAS and PFOS on their own after growing tired of the slow pace of the federal government to act on regulation of these “possibly carcinogenic” chemicals found in many everyday items used by most Americans.
Where can PFAS be found?
- Teflon™ non-stick cookware
- Water repellents
- Some furniture
- Waterproof clothes
- Takeout food containers
- Food packaging
- Certain rubbers and plastics
- Some dental flosses
How are PFAS harmful?
There’s been medical and scientific evidence linking PFAS to the following:
- Kidney cancer
- Testicular cancer
- Liver damage
- Immune system damage
- Vaccine resistance
- Thyroid disease
- Fertility problems
- High cholesterol
- Ulcerative colitis
- Pregnancy-induced high blood pressure
- Decreased sperm count
- Decreased penis size
- Lower birth weight
What is being done about PFAS legally speaking?
- Some states are pushing for their own regulations and bans on PFAS.
- PFOS and PFOA (chemicals in the PFAS family) have been “largely phased out of use in the US under a 2006 voluntary agreement brokered by the EPA with eight major companies, including DuPont.”
- In the European Union, PFAS use and manufacture is much lower than in the United States; PFOS is regulated as a “persistent organic pollutant,” with more regulations coming in 2020.
- Our neighbor to the north, Canada, has declared PFOS a “toxic substance” and has prohibited its use and import.
How are consumers exposed to PFAS and how can we protect ourselves?
- Exposure to PFAS comes mainly from drinking contaminated water, eating food packaged in certain materials, or using products made with PFAS.
- Non-stick cookware (Teflon™) could be avoided
- Gore-Tex fabric and clothing made with pre-2000 Scotchgard™ should be avoided
- Hygiene products containing PTFE or “flouro” ingredients should be avoided
- Ask your local health department if your water is contaminated above EPA-specified levels.
- Check local fish advisories and avoid eating from contaminated catches.
There is also great concern of PFAS in drinking water, and many states have taken steps to regulate the PFAS threshold in public drinking water, for instance, in schools. The EPA’s maximum contaminant level for PFOS and PFOA chemicals is 70 parts per trillion (ppt). New Hampshire is just one of the states currently working on regulating PFAS in drinking water. New Hampshire is hoping to set the limit of PFAS in water to 38 ppt.