PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, are thousands of chemicals belonging to a single chemical class. PFOA, PFOS, and GenX are PFAS that have become notorious drinking water contaminants as a result of industrial releases and use of firefighting foam. But PFAS may also be used in a wide range of products, from food packaging to stain-resistant furniture, and our exposure comes from multiple sources and routes.
With their remarkable persistence and mobility—they are not known to break down in the environment and they move through soil to drinking water—PFAS have become global pollutants that threaten the health of people and wildlife. Because of this, many scientists refer to them as “forever chemicals.”
What products contain PFAS?
Many products may be made with these compounds, including:
- paper packaging, such as microwave popcorn bags and takeout packaging, including wrappers, bags, bowls (like the one pictured above), and other containers
- stain-resistant carpets, rugs, and furniture;
- sprayable stain protectors;
- non-stick cookware;
- outdoor gear with a “durable water repellent” coating;
- aerospace, medical, and automotive applications; and
- many specialty items such as firefighting foams, ski wax, and industrial applications.
How am I exposed?
We are exposed to PFAS from food, from indoor air and dust, and in many cases, from drinking water. Food, air, and water have become contaminated globally as a result of manufacturing releases and use of PFAS-containing products.
- Drinking water: Initial testing of some water systems in 2013-2015 revealed an estimated six million U.S. residents with drinking water supplies contaminated with PFAS above safety levels set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). This testing also detected PFAS in drinking water at values below the EPA’s safety levels, which means that drinking water for as many as 16.5 million (1 in 20) Americans is tainted with PFAS. This number is increasing as more contamination is discovered almost weekly. Click here to view the map created by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) displaying contamination found across the U.S. In 2018, the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry issued a draft report suggesting safety levels for PFAS 6 times lower than those used by EPA. This means that more communities may have PFAS levels in their water that are a concern for health.
- In most areas, use of PFAS-based firefighting foam and manufacturing appear to be the pollution sources. Much of the contamination is found near airports, military bases, ports, and local fire districts that use PFAS-based aqueous film-forming foam, or AFFF. Firefighters apply this foam in fire emergencies, but also for vapor suppression after oil spills and in regular training. Firefighting foams are also released during equipment maintenance.
- In 2018, Congress passed the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Reauthorization Act with an amendment to allow commercial aircraft manufacturers and the 533 U.S. commercial airports to opt out of using PFAS-containing foam by 2021. PFAS-containing firefighting foam is currently required to be used on military bases.
- Food: PFAS can build up in crops, fish, and livestock, ultimately contaminating the food we eat. In addition, when PFAS are used in food packaging, such as bags, sandwich wrappers and takeout containers, they can migrate to our food.
- Indoor air and dust: When PFAS are used in products such as stain-proofing for furniture and carpets or waterproofing for clothing, these items become “PFAS factories,” releasing the chemicals over time into air and dust.
- Home and workplace products: PFAS use in cleaners, personal care products, and specialty products such as ski wax can lead to direct exposure from product use.
Why should I be concerned?
PFAS are extremely persistent in the environment and some of them build up in people and animals. They can migrate out of consumer products into household dust and air, are released by industries, and contaminate drinking water and food. Once they are in our bodies, they stick around—with half-lives in people of up to eight years. Nearly every U.S. resident has PFAS in his or her body, with biomonitoring studies finding PFAS in blood, breast milk, umbilical cord blood, amniotic fluid, placenta, and other tissues.
Exposure to these compounds has been linked to a number of health concerns:
- Cancer: PFAS induce tumors in laboratory animals, and the International Agency for Research on Cancer has designated PFOA as a possible carcinogen based on epidemiological evidence linking exposure to kidney and testicular cancer.
- Hormone disruption: laboratory tests indicate numerous PFAS affect hormone production and response, with effects on estrogen production and response, thyroid hormone signaling, and on receptors involved in regulation of fat metabolism. People exposed to higher levels of PFAS have higher total and LDL cholesterol.
- Liver and kidney toxicity: PFAS are associated with multiple effects on liver and kidney, including liver lesions, kidney degeneration, and damage to liver function.
- Harm to the immune system: research has identified the immune system as sensitive to PFAS in both laboratory and epidemiological studies. A 2012 study of 587 children found those with greater exposure to PFAS had significantly poorer responses to vaccines.
- Reproductive and developmental toxicity: Laboratory tests associated PFAS exposure with decreased survival of young, disrupted reproductive cycles, and impaired growth of the uterus and ovaries. In addition, a number of large epidemiological studies have related higher maternal exposure to PFAS to lower birth weight. A study published in April 2020 reported that PFAS exposure from drinking contaminated water was associated with a higher chance of low birth weight, pre-term birth, and lowered general fertility, and that the differences moderated after PFAS was filtered from the water, providing evidence of a causal link between PFAS and reproductive impacts.
What can government and industry do?
PFAS have been produced, used, and disposed of essentially without regulation for the last half-century, but retailers and federal, state, and local governments have begun to take action.
- In 2018, Congress passed the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Reauthorization Act with an amendment to allow commercial aircraft manufacturers and the 533 U.S. commercial airports to opt out of using PFAS-containing foam by 2021.
State and local governments
- In 2018, the Washington State Legislature passed two new laws, banning PFAS in food packaging and banning sales of PFAS-containing firefighting foam. In 2019, Maine passed a law banning PFAS and other chemicals in food packaging and Colorado passed a law that bans sales of PFAS-containing firefighting foam. In 2020, New York passed a law banning PFAS in food packaging, building on the procurement policy the state adopted in 2018 requiring food service containers and wrappers bought by the state to be free of intentionally added PFAS.
- Washington State published an interim Chemical Action Plan in 2018 and is continuing a process to address all sources of PFAS exposure. In 2019, the Washington State Legislature passed The Pollution Prevention for Our Future Act, giving the state authority to regulate chemicals, including all PFAS, in consumer products beyond food packaging and firefighting foam.
- Several states, including New Jersey, Minnesota, and Michigan, have set drinking water standards to protect residents from PFAS in water.
- San Francisco passed an ordinance in 2018 banning PFAS in food packaging, and Berkeley enacted a similar measure in 2019.
For more information about state policies, click here: http://www.saferstates.com/bill-tracker/
- Many fast-food and fast-casual retailers including Cava, Chipotle, Freshii, McDonald’s, Panera Bread, Sweetgreen, Taco Bell, and Wendy’s have committed to reduce or eliminate the entire PFAS class from some or all of their consumer-facing food packaging.
- Several grocery retailers, including Ahold Delhaize, Albertsons, Trader Joe’s, and Whole Foods Market, have made similar commitments around food packaging.
- Major home improvement retailers The Home Depot and Lowe’s both committed to phase out the sale of carpets and rugs with PFAS.
- Office supply chain Staples has named PFAS in disposable foodware, furniture, and textiles as a priority for safer alternatives innovation.
- Home furnishings retailer IKEA restricts the use of PFAS in textile materials in its products.
For more detail on retail action on PFAS, visit this page.
- Many manufacturers are successfully producing alternatives to PFAS in food packaging, firefighting foam, and other products.
- As of January 2020, the Biodegradable Products Institute and the Compost Manufacturing Alliance, which certify items as compostable, prohibit any intentionally added fluorinated chemicals or levels of these chemicals above 100 ppm in the products they certify.
Recommendations for government and retailers:
State and local governments should continue to take the lead in passing policies to restrict PFAS. Congress should take action to eliminate the sources of PFAS that end up in the environment, including the military’s use of PFAS-containing firefighting foam. In addition, manufacturers and retailers should establish chemicals policies that eliminate PFAS in products (e.g. textiles and electronics) and packaging they produce and sell, replacing them with safer alternatives. For guidance on phasing PFAS out of food packaging, review our guides for quick-service restaurant chains and grocery chains.
How can I reduce my exposure?
- Know what’s in your water. Reach out to your local water utility to ask them to test for PFAS or share the results if they’ve already tested. For information on water filtration systems that reduce PFAS, click here.
- Watch out for packaged foods. It’s generally a good idea to stay away from greasy or oily packaged and fast foods in paper packaging, as the packages often contain grease-repellent coatings that may contain PFAS. PFAS can also be used to impart water resistance to food packaging. Examples of items likely treated with PFAS include microwave popcorn bags, takeout containers and other packaging from grocery stores or fast-casual restaurants, and fast-food wrappers and bags. However, PFAS-free alternatives have also been coming on the market. A sample of the offerings has been compiled here.
- Avoid stain-resistance treatments. Avoid furniture and carpets that are marketed as “stain-resistant,” and don’t apply stain resistant finishing treatments to these or other items. Where possible, choose alternatives to clothing that has been treated for water or stain resistance, such as outerwear and sportswear, unless it is clearly guaranteed to be free of all PFAS. Other products that may be treated include shoes, luggage, and camping and sporting equipment.
- Check your personal-care products. Avoid personal-care products made with Teflon™ or containing ingredients that include the words “fluoro” or “perfluoro.” PFAS has been found in dental floss and a variety of cosmetics, including nail polish, facial moisturizers, and eye make-up. Visit MADE SAFE’s website to view products that have been certified as free of PFAS and other toxic chemicals.
- Avoid Teflon™ or non-stick cookware. If you choose to continue using non-stick cookware, be careful not to let it heat to above 450ºF. Do not leave non-stick cookware unattended on the stove or use non-stick cookware in hot ovens or grills. Discard products if non-stick coatings show signs of deterioration.