In our nationally syndicated radio show this week, our guests discuss “forever chemicals” (PFAS) used in a wide range of products. How do they affect our health?
Scientists refer to a large class of synthetic chemicals, per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, as “forever chemicals.” A Dupont chemist created the first one in 1938. It later became famous as Teflon. Other PFAS also have nonstick properties. In addition, they may help make products water repellent or stain resistant. Consequently, they are found in a multitude of everyday products, from carpets to rain jackets to food packaging.
The distinctive feature of PFAS is that they contain chemical bonds between carbon and fluorine. This combination does not seem to occur in nature, and it has proven exceptionally durable. As a result, the PFAS last an extremely long time–hence the title, forever chemicals. Besides the frightening environmental implications of synthetic chemicals found nearly everywhere that don’t break down, there are a number of potential health effects.
PFAS exposure may lead to deleterious health effects such as high cholesterol, changes in liver enzymes, elevated blood pressure during pregnancy, kidney cancer and thyroid disruption. In addition, such exposure may weaken or disrupt the immune response. This last is especially worrisome in the middle of a global pandemic. However, scientists uncovered this problem even before COVID-19 began. Here is a link to a report on the immune system effects of PFOA and PFOS, two forever chemicals, that the National Toxicology Program published in 2016. PFAS in Food Packaging:
In its May 2022 issue, Consumer Reports published an article titled “The Dangerous Chemicals in Your Fast Food Wrappers.” In it, writer Kevin Loria describes an investigation the magazine undertook. Secret shoppers purchased products from a range of restaurants and groceries. Then CR had chemists analyze the products for evidence that they contained forever chemicals. The investigation uncovered quite a range of PFAS levels, with the highest, surprisingly, in paper bags, molded fiber bowls and single use plates. In our interview, Kevin Loria describes what they found and how you can minimize your exposure.
Linda Birnbaum, PhD, is a toxicologist and scientist emeritus. She was director of the of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and the National Toxicology Program for many years. Prior to that, she directed environmental health research at the EPA. Dr. Birnbaum served as president of the Society of Toxicology and chaired the Division of Toxicology at the American Society for Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics. She is a scholar in residence at Duke University.
Kevin Loria is a science journalist who covers health for Consumer Reports, including environmental health, health privacy, and fitness. He’s interested in stories about systems or products that harm or fail to protect individuals. His article on forever chemicals in food packaging was published in the May issue of the magazine.
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