You may not be familiar with them, but you have no doubt encountered them—PFAS, short for Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances, represent a growing environmental and health crisis that can no longer be ignored. 

PFAS are a large group of man-made chemicals that have been used since the 1940s in a variety of industries and consumer products. Their unique properties of being water-resistant, oil-resistant, and incredibly persistent have made them widely used for things like non-stick cookware, stain-resistant fabrics, food packaging, personal care items, and countless other applications.

A Growing Concern

The same characteristics that have made PFAS useful in manufacturing are now proving to be a nightmare. Dubbed ‘forever chemicals’  because they don’t break down easily, PFAS have accumulated in both the environment and in our bodies over the decades of their use and disposal. They are now being detected virtually everywhere – in air, soil, water, wildlife, and even in human breast milk and umbilical cord blood.(1)

One of the most pressing issues with PFAS is the widespread contamination of drinking water supplies, especially near facilities that use or produce these chemicals. Because PFAS don’t degrade and can travel long distances, even communities far from obvious sources are finding their water contaminated. 

Exposure to certain PFAS has been linked to a range of health issues, including fertility problems, thyroid disorders, weakened childhood immunity, and increased risk of certain cancers. The two most well-studied PFAS, PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid) and PFOS (perfluorooctane sulfonate), have been phased out of production in the U.S., but yet they persist in the environment. While these two are no longer in production, there are over 4,700 different PFAS chemicals, many of which we know very little regarding their potential toxicity, as most have not undergone rigorous safety testing. More research is urgently needed to develop safer alternatives, remediating existing contamination, and studying the health effects of these currently unregulated compounds.

Sounding the Alarm on the Dangers of PFAS

environmental

While the environmental persistence of PFAS is hugely concerning, the potential health effects from exposure to these chemicals are even more alarming. In 2015, the Madrid Statement was released, with over 200 scientists from 40 countries warning about the dangers of PFAS and calling for greater regulation based on the accumulating evidence.(2) This statement echoed similar conclusions from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and many peer-reviewed studies.

Some of the most concerning risks to human health include:

Reproductive Effects—PFAS can impact fertility and increase high blood pressure in pregnant women. Higher PFAS levels have been associated with decreased sperm quality, increased risk of pregnancy-induced hypertension, and preeclampsia.(3)

Developmental Impacts on Children—Prenatal PFAS exposure has been linked to lower birth weights as well as potential developmental delays, accelerated puberty, changes in bone formation, and effects on behaviour and metabolism in children.(4)

Increased Cancer Risk—Elevated levels of PFAS in the body are associated with an increased risk of certain cancers, including prostate, kidney, and testicular cancers.(5)

Weakened Immunity—PFAS exposure may reduce the body’s ability to fight infections by interfering with the antibody response and suppressing vaccine efficacy.(6)

Hormone Disruption—As endocrine-disrupting chemicals, PFAS can interfere with the body’s natural hormones, potentially leading to a wide range of issues. In males, PFAS exposure has been linked to increased aromatization, which can raise estrogen levels and lower testosterone. This can contribute to fertility problems, but also other conditions like gynecomastia.(7) In females, PFAS may disrupt normal reproductive hormone balances and has been associated with PCOS, endometriosis, and other gynecological issues.(8) Beyond reproductive effects, PFAS can also alter thyroid hormone levels, metabolic function, and even neural development and behaviour.(9)

High Cholesterol and Obesity—The metabolic impacts of PFAS appear to promote greater weight gain and make it extremely difficult to lose weight. Studies have found that higher PFAS levels are associated with a larger waist circumference, higher BMI, and increased body fat, even in children and adolescents.(10) PFAS may impair the body’s ability to metabolize fats and calories properly, as well as potentially dysregulate hunger hormones like leptin.(11)

Liver Damage—PFAS accumulate in the liver and are known to accelerate metabolic changes that cause fatty liver disease and liver toxicity.(12)

Given such a wide range of serious potential health effects, the existing evidence paints a concerning picture of an environmental crisis with profound personal impacts on human health and development across all life stages. While more research continues, the current data demands urgent attention and action to protect public health.

6 Common Sources of PFAS and How to Avoid Them

PFAS are incredibly pervasive in modern life, and avoiding them completely is nearly impossible. However, being aware of the major exposure routes can help minimize contact with these ‘forever’ chemicals. 

1. Food Packaging

Limiting processed and fast foods is one of the best ways to reduce PFAS exposure from packaging. Those wrappers, bags, boxes and containers often contain PFAS chemicals to repel grease and moisture. The PFAS can then migrate into the food itself during heating or storage.

Microwave popcorn is a notorious source of PFAS, so skip the bags entirely and opt for air-popped or use the good old-fashioned stovetop method. When buying frozen foods, remove them from the PFAS-treated packaging as soon as possible and store in safer glass or ceramic containers at home.

For groceries like produce, baked goods, and other items sold in PFAS-treated paper or cardboard, transfer them to PFAS-free reusable containers made of materials like glass, stainless steel or silicone as soon as you get home. While this added step takes a little more effort, it’s a simple way to limit direct food contamination.

When eating out, avoid hot foods wrapped in PFAS-lined paper or containers. Whenever possible, provide your own containers. And let’s talk about that daily grab-and-go coffee habit. You know, that quick stop for a hot drink before heading into the office or errand-running. Well, hate to be the bearer of bad news, but those disposable lids they stick on top? Yeah, those can contain PFAS too.

Your best bet is to bring along your own reusable mug or bottle when you can. But if that’s not feasible, I’d suggest skipping the lid altogether. Sure, it might be a little messier, but the main goal is to cut out as many potential PFAS sources as possible from your daily routine. Taking these precautions with food packaging goes a long way to minimizing PFAS from migrating into the foods you eat daily.

2. Consumer Products

When it comes to consumer products, being a label detective is key to avoiding PFAS. Skip any stain-resistant treatments on clothing, upholstery, or carpet – those coatings are applied using PFAS chemicals. Through normal use and degradation over time, these products can release PFAS into household air and dust. (13) The compounds can accumulate in our homes and ultimately make their way into our bodies through ingestion or inhalation. Instead, opt for natural, untreated fabrics like cotton, wool, linen or leather.

PFAS can also lurk in many personal care and cosmetic products. These chemicals help give makeup, moisturizers, shampoos, and other personal care formulas their smooth textures and long-wearing properties. However, their presence is a major source of direct PFAS exposure through absorption into the body.

I have used and relied on the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep database (www.ewg.org/skindeep) for years now to find PFAS-free personal care alternatives. It’s an invaluable resource that allows you to look up specific products and see how they rate based on an analysis of their ingredients by EWG’s team of scientists. The database grades products based on hazards associated with their formulations, making it easy to identify any PFAS or other chemicals that are concerning.

When scanning ingredient lists, avoid anything with the words “fluoro” or “perfluoro” in the name, as well as vague terms like “fluoropolymer,” which could indicate PFAS. The Skin Deep database takes the guesswork out of deciphering these labels. Having a reputable third-party source analyzing product safety is so helpful for making informed choices about what to use on your body. The EWG does excellent work advocating for greater transparency around chemical safety in personal care products.

For other household items like cleaners, paints or sealants, research brands thoroughly and don’t assume “green” claims mean they are PFAS-free. Contact manufacturers directly if ingredients are not fully disclosed. Making the effort to meticulously vet products is crucial, as PFAS can lurk in very unexpected places. 

3. Drinking Water

As mentioned earlier, PFAS contamination of drinking water supplies near manufacturing facilities, airports, military bases, and other sites is a major exposure pathway. But even in areas without obvious point sources, PFAS can enter water systems through atmospheric deposition, landfill leachate, wastewater treatment plant effluent, and the use of contaminated biosolids as fertilizer.(14)

Ensuring your drinking and cooking water is free of PFAS contamination requires proper filtration measures. Standard methods like boiling, chlorinating, or using a basic pitcher filter are completely ineffective at removing these persistent PFAS compounds. Personally, I use both a reverse osmosis system along with a Santevia filter at home, and I have Santevia filters at the clinic. They are excellent – they filter out 99% of fluoride, a toxin that may cause thyroid and neurological problems, as well as over 80 other contaminants, including heavy metals, PFAS/PFOS, and VOCs while adding beneficial minerals like calcium, magnesium and potassium. This is the one I use, and it can be found on Amazon HERE.

Your best solution is to install a high-quality carbon filtration system that is certified to remove PFAS. Look for filters that specifically use tight micropores or ion exchange technology to capture these chemicals during the filtration process. Having the system installed at the point of entry for your home’s water supply provides the broadest protection. At the very least, use a PFAS-removing carbon filter for your kitchen tap to ensure clean drinking and cooking water. Replace filters on the manufacturer’s recommended schedule to maintain maximum PFAS reduction over time. While it requires an investment, using the right filtration is critical to limiting this major source of exposure.

4. Non-Stick Cookware

Traditional non-stick pots and pans should be avoided due to the PFAS compounds in their coatings that can migrate into food over time. Even cookware marketed as “PFAS-free” may still utilize other fluorinated chemicals like PTFE in their non-stick coatings, so it’s wise to be cautious. Your safest options are uncoated cookware like ceramic, stainless steel, traditional cast iron, or enameled cast iron.

Transitioning away from non-stick surfaces does require some adjustments in cooking technique. You’ll likely need to use more oil or butter to prevent sticking and cook at temperatures different from the ones you’re accustomed to with non-stick pans. Making this change can be tricky, at first–go slowly, experiment with cooking methods, and have patience. With a little practice, you can master cooking with ceramic, stainless, or cast iron while avoiding risky PFAS exposure from non-stick pans. The switch protects your health and is an important step in limiting the ingestion of these hazardous compounds from your kitchen.

5. Contact Lenses

When it comes to contact lenses, unfortunately all brands currently use some PFAS to make the lenses soft and permeable to oxygen.(15) Until PFAS-free options become available, it’s best to minimize your exposure by wearing glasses as much as possible. Reserve contact lens wear only for necessary situations, and give your eyes a break from them whenever you can to limit the PFAS absorption into your body.

Opting for daily disposable lenses rather than extended-wear lenses can also help reduce your overall PFAS exposure from this source. With daily disposables, you are only exposing your eyes to a fresh new lens for that single day before discarding it. The PFAS compounds leach out of the lens material over time, so each new daily lens you put in has had minimal time for that leaching to occur. With extended-wear lenses made to last weeks or months, the same lens material is continuously exposed to your tear film and eyes for a prolonged period. This allows more time for the PFAS to gradually leach out of the lens and absorb into your eye tissue.

One of the main reasons that I wear my glasses way more than my contact lenses now, (even the disposable ones), is that contact lens solutions also contain concerning compounds. One of the components may be thiomersal (commonly known as thimerosal in the US). Thiomersal is a mercury-based preservative used since the 1930s in the manufacture of vaccines and other pharmaceutical products such as antiseptics, and also for cosmetics and contact lens solutions. Talk about a toxic cocktail I’d rather minimize getting anywhere near my eyes!

6. Seafood

Limit your intake of freshwater fish like bass, trout and perch as many lakes and rivers are contaminated with PFAS that can bioaccumulate in the flesh of the fish.(16) For seafood, your best options are wild-caught fish from remote areas without known PFAS pollution issues. The Environmental Working Group (EWG) and other organizations provide guides and advice on which seafood sources tend to have lower PFAS levels based on their testing. Smaller, shorter-lived species like sardines and anchovies are typically recommended over larger, long-living predatory fish that can accumulate more PFAS over time.

Every Effort Counts

The ubiquity of PFAS in our modern world is undoubtedly concerning, but it doesn’t mean we are powerless. By being proactive and making informed choices as consumers, we can collectively drive change and reduce our exposure to these ‘forever’ chemicals.

Every small step you take to avoid PFAS has a positive cumulative effect on your health and the environment. Don’t be discouraged that you can’t eliminate them entirely—just do what you reasonably can based on your circumstances. As more people make their voices heard through consumer demand, manufacturers will be pressured to develop and use PFAS-free materials. Lawmakers will have greater impetus to enact stronger regulations to get these persistent pollutants out of the products we rely on every day.

There’s no doubt this is an uphill battle, but an incredibly important one for safeguarding our health and that of future generations. 

In the meantime, concentrate your efforts on what is within your control – minimize PFAS sources in your home and environment as much as possible, and take proactive steps to support your body’s natural detoxification pathways to help negate some of the impacts from unavoidable exposures. For more guidance, click here to read a previous blog I wrote on this topic HERE.

In-Text References

  1. National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. (n.d.). Perfluoroalkyl and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS). https://www.niehs.nih.gov/health/topics/agents/pfc
  2. Blum, A., Balan, S. A., Scheringer, M., Trier, X., Goldenman, G., Cousins, I. T., Diamond, M., … Weber, R. (2015). The Madrid Statement on Poly- and Perfluoroalkyl Substances (PFASs). Environmental Health Perspectives, 123(5), A107-A111. https://doi.org/10.1289/ehp.1509934
  3. Preston EV, Hivert MF, Fleisch AF, Calafat AM, Sagiv SK, Perng W, Rifas-Shiman SL, Chavarro JE, Oken E, Zota AR, James-Todd T. Early-pregnancy plasma per- and polyfluoroalkyl substance (PFAS) concentrations and hypertensive disorders of pregnancy in the Project Viva cohort. Environ Int. 2022 Jul;165:107335. doi: 10.1016/j.envint.2022.107335. Epub 2022 Jun 6. PMID: 35696844; PMCID: PMC9348856.
  4. Gundacker C, Audouze K, Widhalm R, Granitzer S, Forsthuber M, Jornod F, Wielsøe M, Long M, Halldórsson TI, Uhl M, Bonefeld-Jørgensen EC. Reduced Birth Weight and Exposure to Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances: A Review of Possible Underlying Mechanisms Using the AOP-HelpFinder. Toxics. 2022 Nov 12;10(11):684. doi: 10.3390/toxics10110684. PMID: 36422892; PMCID: PMC9699222.
  5. Seyyedsalehi MS, Boffetta P. Per- and Poly-fluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS) Exposure and Risk of Kidney, Liver, and Testicular Cancers: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Med Lav. 2023 Oct 24;114(5):e2023040. doi: 10.23749/mdl.v114i5.15065. PMID: 37878255; PMCID: PMC10627102.
  6. von Holst H, Nayak P, Dembek Z, Buehler S, Echeverria D, Fallacara D, John L. Perfluoroalkyl substances exposure and immunity, allergic response, infection, and asthma in children: review of epidemiologic studies. Heliyon. 2021 Oct 12;7(10):e08160. doi: 10.1016/j.heliyon.2021.e08160. PMID: 34712855; PMCID: PMC8529509.
  7. Tarapore P, Ouyang B. Perfluoroalkyl Chemicals and Male Reproductive Health: Do PFOA and PFOS Increase Risk for Male Infertility? Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2021 Apr 5;18(7):3794. doi: 10.3390/ijerph18073794. PMID: 33916482; PMCID: PMC8038605.
  8. Vagi, S. J., Azziz-Baumgartner, E., Sjödin, A., Calafat, A. M., Damreira, D., Gonzalez, L., … & Swan, S. H. (2014). Exploring the potential association between brominated diphenyl ethers, polychlorinated biphenyls, organochlorine pesticides, perfluorinated compounds, phthalates, and bisphenol A in polycystic ovary syndrome. Environmental Research, 133, 226-236.
  9. Melzer, D., Rice, N., Depledge, M. H., Henley, W. E., & Galloway, T. S. (2010). Association between serum perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and thyroid disease in the US National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. Environmental Health Perspectives, 118(5), 686-692.
  10. Canova C, Di Nisio A, Barbieri G, Russo F, Fletcher T, Batzella E, Dalla Zuanna T, Pitter G. PFAS Concentrations and Cardiometabolic Traits in Highly Exposed Children and Adolescents. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2021 Dec 7;18(24):12881. doi: 10.3390/ijerph182412881. PMID: 34948492; PMCID: PMC8701234.
  11. Coperchini, F., Awwad, O., Rotondi, M., Santini, F., Imbriani, M., & Chiovato, L. (2017). Perfluoroalkyl substances and glucose metabolism. The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism, 102(7), 2502-2508.
  12. Bassler, J., Ducatman, A., Elliott, M., Wen, S., Wahlang, B., Barnett, J., & Cave, M. C. (2019). Environmental perfluoroalkyl acid exposures are associated with liver disease characterized by apoptosis and altered serum adipocytokines. Environmental Pollution, 247, 1055-1063. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.envpol.2019.01.064
  13. United States Environmental Protection Agency. (2023). Our current understanding of the human health and environmental risks of PFAS. https://www.epa.gov/pfas/our-current-understanding-human-health-and-environmental-risks-pfas
  14. Ehsan, M. N., Riza, M., Pervez, M. N., Li, C.-W., Zorpas, A. A., & Naddeo, V. (2024). PFAS contamination in soil and sediment: Contribution of sources and environmental impacts on soil biota. Current Studies in Chemical Engineering, 1, 100643. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cscee.2024.100643
  15. Mamavation. (2023, April 18). Indications of PFAS “Forever Chemicals” in Contact Lenses — Report. https://www.mamavation.com/health/pfas-contact-lenses.
  16. Environmental Working Group. (2023, January 17). EWG study: Eating one freshwater fish equals a month of drinking ‘forever chemicals’ water. https://www.ewg.org/news-insights/news-release/2023/01/ewg-study-eating-one-freshwater-fish-equals-month-drinking
General HealthThe Toxic Truth About PFAS: Avoiding the “Forever Chemicals” in Our Lives