Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) have been known to be hazardous to consumer health since their introduction in the 1940s. PFAS is not a single product, but rather an entire class of synthetic chemicals that are used in a variety of products.
PFAS, also known as the “forever chemicals,” are used to make products that are water- or grease-resistant. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), PFAS chemicals can be found in:
- Food packaged in PFAS-containing materials, processed with equipment that used PFAS, or grown in PFAS-contaminated soil or water.
- Commercial household products such as stain- and water-repellent fabrics, nonstick products like Teflon, polishes, waxes, paints, cleaning products, and fire-fighting foams.
- Workplaces, including production facilities or industries that use PFAS.
- Drinking water, typically localized and associated with a specific facility.
- Living organisms, including fish, animals and humans, where PFAS have the ability to build up and persist over time
A major source of PFAS groundwater contamination is at airports and military bases where firefighting training occurs due to the use of PFAS chemicals in foam. PFAS takes so long to break down that even deceased people can become a source of PFAS contamination.
According to the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, there are over 4,700 different PFAS chemical compounds with new compounds being invented nearly every day. While the EPA has taken efforts to measure and control up to 29 chemicals, the agency lacks the broad authority and regulatory power to control PFAS as a chemical class.
While PFOA and PFOS have been well documented as harmful, many companies are switching to a new PFAS chemical: GenX. GenX has also been found in surface water, groundwater, finished drinking water, rainwater, and air emissions in some areas, showing that even newer PFAS chemicals are already leaching into the environment.
With the sharp increase in PFAS chemical production, many consumers are in danger of the effects of PFAS buildup. The EPA has found PFAS exposure can cause reproductive, developmental, liver, kidney, and immunological effects as well as tumors in laboratory animals.
The EPA has found that human epidemiology studies resulted in increased cholesterol levels among exposed populations, with other findings associated with decreased infant birth weights, negative effects on the immune system, various cancers, and thyroid hormone disruption.
While there are movements attempting to limit and regulate PFAS in consumer products, the current situation allows the EPA to simply construct regulatory suggestions for chemical manufacturers.