Dear EarthTalk: Why are “forever chemicals” so bad, and how can I avoid them?
—M.N., via email
“Forever chemicals” are types of highly persistent and toxic synthetic chemicals widely used in many industries, including firefighting foam, non-stick cookware, food packaging and water-resistant clothing. These chemicals are called “forever” because they do not break down easily in the environment and can persist for decades or even centuries, accumulating in soil, water and air.
The most common types of forever chemicals are per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), which include compounds such as perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonic acid (PFOS). PFAS have been linked to a range of health problems, including cancer, immune system damage, hormone disruption and developmental delays. The problem with forever chemicals is that they can accumulate in our bodies over time, as well as in the bodies of animals and plants, leading to long-term health and environmental consequences. Because these chemicals do not break down easily in the environment, they can also contaminate soil, water and air, potentially impacting entire ecosystems.
To avoid exposure to forever chemicals, there are several steps you can take. First, avoid using non-stick cookware and other products that contain PFAS. Instead, opt for stainless steel, cast iron or ceramic cookware. Secondly, avoid using products that are labeled water-resistant, stain-resistant or grease-resistant, as they may contain PFAS. Thirdly, use natural, organic and biodegradable cleaning products instead of conventional cleaning products that may contain PFAS. When shopping for food, choose products that are packaged in glass, metal or paper containers instead of plastic containers, as plastic can contain PFAS. Finally, if you live in an area where PFAS contamination is a concern, consider installing a water filtration system that is designed to remove these chemicals.
According to the non-profit Environmental Working Group, a watchdog organization that tracks contaminants and chemicals in food, health and beauty products, nearly all Americans, including newborn babies, have forever chemicals in their bloodstreams, while 200 million of us may well be drinking tap water contaminated with these toxins. And we’re not the only ones at risk. Researchers have found traces of forever chemicals in wildlife all over the world, including some endangered species. Who would’ve thought that such a risk would threaten polar bears in the Arctic let alone tigers, monkeys and pandas in milder locales and even dolphins and fish across the world’s oceans?
Forever chemicals have been ubiquitous in our ecosystems and bloodstreams for decades, but it wasn’t until March 2023 that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) started to address the issue by setting Maximum Contaminant Level (MCL) goals for PFAS and related persistent chemicals in drinking water supplies. While this might be too little too late for those of us exposed to these toxins year after year, at least it’s a step in the right direction. “Decades of unchecked use and releases of PFAS chemicals have devastated the planet by contaminating people, drinking water, and food, including fish and wildlifeacross the globe,” says Tasha Stoiber, a senior scientist at EWG. “The proposed nationwide standards to limit exposure to PFAS in drinking water are a welcome development to address the harms these toxic chemicals have already inflicted upon individuals and communities.”
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