10922007884?profile=RESIZE_710xYou may have seen warnings about PFAS in non-stick cookware, but that’s just the beginning. Let’s dive deeper into these nefarious chemicals that have been around since the 1940s. PFAS, which stand for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, are man-made chemicals that are found everywhere in everyday use. They are “forever chemicals” that contaminate the environment in soil, air, and water and take over 1,000 years to break down. Blood tests indicate that PFAS stay in the bodies of humans and animals indefinitely and cannot be removed. Exposure to PFAS has been linked to immune system suppression, lower birth weight, harm to reproductive and immune systems, and increased risk for some cancers.

PFAS were originally designed for industrial processes such as fire-retarding foam at airfields and military bases. They are used for waterproofing clothing items and stain-proofing and protecting furniture, carpets, and textiles. The FDA also authorizes certain PFAS for use in grease-repellant food packaging, takeout containers, food processing equipment, and waterproof cosmetics. According to Consumer Reports, there are more than 9,000 known PFAS, so identifying the exact type of PFAS in a product is complex, and common testing methods can identify only a couple dozen. The U.S. no longer manufacturers PFAS, but they are still produced internationally and imported into the U.S. 

PFAS in Water

Water from wells and public water systems sometimes carries a risk for high levels of PFAS, especially near military bases and fire stations. The full extent of environmental contamination is still coming to light, but studies show PFAS pose a serious threat across rural, suburban, and urban areas and disproportionately affect disadvantaged communities. For communities on the frontlines of PFAS water contamination, the EPA is making $1 billion available in grant funding through President Biden's Bipartisan Infrastructure Law to provide technical assistance, water quality testing, contractor training, and installation of centralized treatment technologies and systems. Additionally, the PFAS Action Act would set national drinking water standards and designate PFAS as a hazardous substance.

Fortunately for EBMUD (East Bay Municipal District) customers, primary drinking water sources are well protected. The EBMUD website reminds us that the Mokelumne River watershed and Pardee Reservoir are located in the Sierra Nevada foothills, far from industrial contamination sources, and local reservoirs such as Briones and San Pablo Reservoirs are also well protected and surrounded by watershed lands. Between 2013 and 2015, all water suppliers were required to sample PFAS to meet federal EPA requirements, and none were detected in EBMUD water. Likewise, the water in the Contra Costa Water District (CCWD) was deemed safe to drink, with no PFOA/PFOS detected. Filtering drinking water with a portable filter, pitcher, or certified filtering device connected directly to your faucet elsewhere can reduce exposure to PFAS.

PFAS in Food

PFAS have been found in burger wrappers, carryout salad bowls, and within the food items themselves, particularly ones that are fatty, salty, or acidic. Consequently, some research suggests that PFAS levels are higher in the bodies of people who eat out regularly compared to those who eat more often at home. Consumer Reports even found PFAS in packaging at chains that promote healthier fare, such Trader Joe’s, as well as places that claim to be moving away from PFAS.

Some fast-food restaurants and several grocery stores have taken steps to limit PFAS in their food packaging or plan to phase it out. Burger King, Nathan’s Famous, and Chick-fil-A announced plans to remove PFAS from food wrappers, and in 2023, a law goes into effect in California that will restrict PFAS in food packaging.

PFAS in Cosmetics

PFAS can be found in various personal and cosmetic grooming products, including certain dental flosses (including Oral-B Glide), makeup (including Burt's Bees mascara and lip shimmers), and facial, body, and hair toiletries. According to Environmental Health News, “The US Food and Drug Administration is notoriously hands-off in regulating the safety of personal care products,” but researchers tested more than 200 cosmetics from North America and found that roughly half contained “organic fluorine,” a PFAS indicator. Colored lipsticks, mascaras, and foundations advertised as “long-lasting” or “wear-resistant” were particularly to blame, even among supposed “clean beauty” brands such as Credo Beauty. In response, several U.S. Representatives have introduced a bipartisan "No PFAS in Cosmetics Act," which would require the Food and Drug Administration to ban the use of PFAS in cosmetics.

What Can You Do to Avoid PFAS?

While PFAS cannot be removed from the body once they are there, you can reduce your exposure by doing the following:

1) Don’t buy non-stick cookware made with PTFE, a type of PFAS. Ceramic pans such as Blue Diamond-Diamond Infused and Red Volcano Textured brands are not supposed to contain any PFAS because the surface is made from ceramic. Traditional cast iron pans and carbon steel pans are other options for avoiding PFAS. If you use non-stick cookware, do not heat it over 450ºF. Keep an eye on it when in use, and make sure to discard it once it begins to wear down.

2) Choose furniture and carpets that aren’t marketed as “stain-resistant.” Also, avoid stain-resistant and finishing treatments such as Stainmaster.

3) Packaged foods with oil-repellent coatings, such as microwave popcorn bags, fast-food packages, wrappers for greasy foods, and faux “cardboard” rounds for store-bought cakes, often contain PFAS. Transfer foods out of grease-resistant packaging that resembles paper or cardboard so that PFAS don’t migrate into your food, especially if it is warm.

4) Avoid reheating food in its original packaging. Foil, silicone, and glass containers typically don’t have PFAS.

5) Consult Environmental Working Group's (EWG) Skin Deep Database to identify products that likely contain PFAS compounds and also to check ingredient lists and safety ratings of almost 75,000 cosmetics and personal care products. Avoid water-resistant products and those with PTFE, “fluoro” or “perfluoro” listed in the ingredients.

6) Limit the use of water-repellent clothing, camping, sporting equipment, and luggage. Outdoor clothing retailer Patagonia says they will phase out PFAS by 2024.

7) According to Environmental Health News, dust generated from buildings and rooms furnished or carpeted with flame, stain, and water-repellent additives is more likely to contain PFAS. This is especially true of older buildings and older furniture, where chemicals migrate out of materials and expose people via dust ingestion, inhalation, and dermal sorption. Newer furniture and building materials are "healthier," provided you don't use additives. To reduce PFAS and other harmful chemicals in the air you breathe, use HEPA filters when vacuuming and change filters on your HVAC units as recommended.

Sources and more reading:

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