They're found in nonstick pans and many other cooking and food products, and the FDA is finding they don’t break down easily in our environment—or our bodies.

By Lauren Wicks
June 11, 2019
Supersmario/Getty Images

Last week, the FDA reported findings that, after years of study, toxic chemicals commonly used in everything from nonstick cookware to take-home containers are showing up in our food and water supply. The group of chemicals, called PFAS, are not only present in the environment, but can be detected in the blood of up to 98% of the U.S. population.

But what are PFAS chemicals, anyways? And how concerned should we really be?

What are PFAS?

PFAS—which stands for Pre- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances—are a family of about 5,000 chemicals used in a variety of consumer and industrial applications. From food packaging to nonstick pans, rain gear to firefighter foam, these chemicals have been used for decades as agents specifically for repelling water and/or oil.

One reason they work so well is that these PFAS are some pretty persistent little guys—they don’t break down easily in the environment or our bodies. And that’s shaping up to be a serious problem.

Are PFAS dangerous?

In short, yes. PFAS chemicals are hazardous in large enough amounts. They have been linked to negative reproductive, developmental, liver, kidney, hormonal and immunity effects as well as higher cholesterol levels. They have also caused tumors in animals. Whether they are dangerous in smaller amounts remains to be seen—but there are two types, and they persist for different amounts of time.

The two general groups of PFAS are "long-chain" and "short-chain." The first is more difficult to break down, so it lasts longer in the environment and body. The FDA has issued health advisories for two of these long-chain chemicals: PFOA and PFOS. And from 2006 to 2015, production of them was phased out by the industry. PFCs, another long-chain chemical, was also banned from further production by the FDA in 2016.

Short-chain PFAS haven’t received as much study or attention, as they have been thought to break down more easily in the environment, and therefore, be less harmful. However, the EPA’s most recent PFAS Action Plan says environmental and human exposure to these short-chain chemicals are expected to increase over time. They are currently being tested for adverse health effects and their ability to persist in the environment and human body.

Interested in learning more about the strange substances going into our food and water supply?

How Are People Exposed to PFAS?

We are exposed to PFAS through the air, dust, drinking water, food, and products (such as certain nonstick pans, take home food containers, and more) made with these chemicals. Since PFAS don’t break down easily, they have persisted for decades, even those that have been phased out of production.

When it comes to our food supply, the recent FDA report explained several ways PFAS can find their way into the grocery store. PFAS are commonly found in water, soil, and sewage sludge, so they can easily contaminate our crops, chicken, livestock, and other animals on farms that produce our meat, dairy, grains, vegetables, fruits, and eggs.

PFAS have long been used in food packaging, cook- and bakeware, as well as greaseproof contact paper, so they can easily contaminate our food even more during the cooking and packaging processes. Even though these PFAS can no longer be used in greaseproof paper and food packaging, their persistence in the environment unfortunately allows their legacy to continue on in the environment and eventually our bodies. Additionally, these chemicals are still in use by other countries like Europe and Australia, so some companies could be using contaminated products to package or cook our food if they were purchased outside of the U.S.

Is There Any Way to Avoid PFAS?

Though it's nearly impossible to avoid PFAS chemicals entirely, we can do our research to avoid using products made with these chemicals. For example, it’s worth taking a closer look at the chemicals used in your nonstick cookware and weighing other options for safer cooking. The University of California at Berkeley has a wonderful guide for helping you make the right cookware choices.

It also may be worth talking to your municipality’s water authority to learn more about your drinking water. The EWG reported 110 million Americans could be affected by the PFAS in our drinking water, but they noted there are 71 different products currently on the market that reduce the amount of PFAS in your water.

Finally, it may be worth considering purchasing some foods organic. A 2014 study from the American Chemical Society found PFAS accumulate in greater amounts in the edible portions of the plant, so foods like whole grains, strawberries, tomatoes, and other foods we eat the flesh of might be worth buying organic if possible.

This is because organic farming has stricter regulations on the way crops can be grown—and sewage sludge, contaminated soils, among other things are not allowed to be used for production. Just remember, organic food should still be properly washed and handled before consumption.

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