Virtually everyone in the US has been exposed to PFAS chemicals. That stands for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances found in fire-fighting foam, nonstick coatings, food packaging and waterproofing or stain resistant chemicals used on clothing, furniture and carpets. Pesticides are also an important source. These are also referred to as “forever chemicals” because they persist in the environment for so long.
The EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) announced on June 15, 2022, that you should worry about PFAS chemicals. These compounds end up in the air we breathe, the dust in our homes, the food we eat and the water we drink. They are suspected of disrupting our hormones as well as negatively affecting many other health systems in our bodies.
Limiting PFAS in Drinking Water:
The EPA is expected to set standards soon limiting the amount of forever chemicals in drinking water. An analysis by the Waterkeeper Alliance this year found PFAS in 83 percent of the waterways analyzed. With such broad exposure, more than 98 percent of Americans have detectable levels in their blood. The EPA will propose standards for only two of these compounds, PFOA and PFOS.
People who live on or near military bases, where firefighting foams are used in training, and those near chemical plants are highly exposed, but most of the rest of us have also been exposed to PFAS. These chemicals may disrupt hormones. In addition, scientists have linked PFAS exposure to kidney and testicular cancer, pregnancy-induced hypertension, thyroid disease, ulcerative colitis and high cholesterol.
The compounds are difficult to remove and will require water treatment plants to invest in new technologies. Two major manufacturers, 3M and Monsanto, have recently announced intentions to stop making PFAS compounds in the future. Even then, however, reducing exposure will be an ongoing challenge that will probably take years to achieve.
PFAS in Your Home?
Where would you find forever chemicals in your house or your car? Let’s start with carpets, furniture and mattress pads. Remember, PFAS compounds are great at resisting stains. As a result, many fabrics get treated with these chemicals to make life “easier.” Some clothing, shoes and boots are treated with water and stain-resistant PFAS products.
There are nonstick frying pans that contain forever chemicals. Certain products are advertised as being PFOA- or Teflon-free. But there are thousands of PFAS chemicals. Companies can substitute compounds that are not on a hit list, but that does not mean they are PFAS-free.
The FDA points out that:
“Certain PFAS are also intentionally added as ingredients in some cosmetic products, including lotions, cleansers, nail polish, shaving cream, foundation, lipstick, eyeliner, eyeshadow, and mascara. These PFAS are used in cosmetics to condition and smooth the skin, making it appear shiny, or to affect product consistency and texture.”
PFAS in Your Tap Water?
The EPA announced this week that forever chemicals are more dangerous than scientists once believed. In particular, PFOA and PFOS levels in drinking water could have negative health consequences even at very low levels.
Scientists are warning that such compounds could impact the immune system as well as the cardiovascular system. That brings us to a new study suggesting that forever chemicals could have an impact on blood pressure.
PFAS and Hypertension:
A new study (Hypertension, June 13, 2022) reveals a connection between high levels of PFAS chemicals and high blood pressure in women. More than 1,000 middle-aged women participated in the Study of Women’s Health Across the Nation (SWAN) for 20 years. Those with the highest levels of PFAS compounds in their blood stream were at greatest risk for hypertension.
The conclusions of the study:
“Several PFAS showed positive associations with incident hypertension. These findings suggest that PFAS might be an underappreciated contributing factor to women’s cardiovascular disease risk.”
The senior author goes on to emphasize:
“We hope that these findings alert clinicians about the importance of PFAS and that they need to understand and recognize PFAS as an important potential risk factor for blood pressure control.”
National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences:
One of the Institutes under the umbrella of the US National Institutes of Health studies whether man-made compounds in our environment have deleterious effects on our health. The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences strives to understand how the environment affects human disease so that it can promote human health. Until her recent retirement, Dr. Linda Birnbaum directed the NIEHS. We interviewed Dr. Birnbaum about PFAS chemicals for our syndicated public radio show. Here are some of the things we discussed.
Does Dose Matter?
The sixteenth-century alchemist Paracelsus famously said, “Solely the dose determines that a thing is not a poison.” In most cases we are familiar with in everyday life, a lower dose of a dangerous compound might be less dangerous. Is that true for the PFAs, or could they still cause trouble even at low levels?
Other Compounds in Our Daily Lives:
Scientists have studied one chemical very well. Bisphenol A was first synthesized more than a hundred years ago. Its estrogenic activity was noted in the 1930s. But it wasn’t until about three decades ago that scientists realized the BPA used in hard clear plastics like laboratory flasks and baby bottles was leaching into the foods and liquids in these containers. Because it can mimic estrogen, it has the potential to disrupt the balance and activity of hormones in the human body.
Consumer alarm has led many manufacturers to replace BPA in their polycarbonate containers with other compounds. Are they any safer?
The Precautionary Principle:
Many European countries utilize the precautionary principle when regulating manmade compounds. Manufacturers are expected to demonstrate that a compound is actually safe before large groups of people are exposed. In the US, on the other hand, scientists or the government have to demonstrate that a compound is harmful before it is regulated.
Other Compounds of Concern:
Toxicologists are examining other agents beyond BPA and the forever chemicals. They have been debating the safety of the herbicide glyphosate (known by its trade name Roundup). An insecticide known as chlorpyrifos has also generated controversy. How do scientists assess the benefits and harms of such chemicals?
Our Guest Expert:
Linda S. Birnbaum, Ph.D., D.A.B.T., A.T.S, is Scientist Emeritus (Retired) and Former Director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and the National Toxicology Program. In addition, Dr. Birnbaum served previously as president of the Society of Toxicology. She was elected to the Institute of Medicine in 2010.
Listen to the Podcast:
The show can be streamed online from this site and podcasts can be downloaded for free. We interviewed Dr. Birnbaum again several weeks ago along with a reporter from Consumer Reports. You will be surprised to learn that PFAS chemicals are also found in lots of food packaging! Here is a link to Show 1301.