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PFAS include around 5,000 chemicals. They have been produced since the 1940s, but their health and environmental risks only gained widespread attention after the chemicals were found in drinking water in 2001. Nearly everyone has come in contact with these forever chemicals through water, food or consumer products.
The two most common and controversial PFAS are no longer made in the United States. But products made with or containing them may still be imported.
And because they take an incredibly long time to break down and have been so widely used, scientists continue to find these older PFAS in rivers, lakes and many drinking water supplies in the United States. They are so prevalent that a researcher told NPR in 2019 that just about everyone in America has some of these chemicals in their blood.
- PFAS include roughly 5,000 different chemicals.
- They are found in consumer goods, food and drinking water.
- More than 16 million Americans drink water contaminated with PFAS from military or industrial sites.
- A 2015 study estimated that PFAS are present in the blood of 97 percent of Americans.
- As PFAS use has declined, so have levels of it in blood.
What Are the Health Risks?
Some studies have linked PFAS exposure to an increased risk of certain cancers. But there is surprisingly little research into the health effects of these chemicals, which have been around for more than 70 years.
A large study of people exposed to one particular PFAS in the Ohio River Valley found a probable link between the chemical C8 and several diseases. Other studies have also associated PFAS with health problems.
- Effects on growth, learning and behavior of infants and children
- Effects on the immune system
- Increased cholesterol levels
- Interference with natural hormones
- Kidney cancer
- Pregnancy-induced hypertension
- Reduced chance of pregnancy
- Testicular cancer
- Thyroid disease
- Ulcerative colitis
Pregnant or breastfeeding women who have PFAS in their blood can transfer the chemical to their babies. But the current research shows that the benefits of breastfeeding outweigh the risks of PFAS effects on infants, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
For the most part, companies don’t have to prove their chemicals are safe before they start selling them. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is charged with determining whether a chemical is dangerous, but the agency usually doesn’t even start looking at a chemical’s safety until after reports of widespread health problems.
Where Are PFAS Found?
PFAS may be found all around you. You likely have several products containing PFAS in your house. They have been found polluting soil and have been a major cause of water contamination throughout the country. As many as 97 percent of people living in the United States may have PFAS in their bloodstreams, according to the U.S. National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey.
Is There a Safe Level of Exposure?
Regulators in the United States still have not established a legal safe limit for exposure to PFAS. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced in February 2019 that it was finally starting the process.
“We are moving forward with several important actions, including the maximum contaminant level process, that will help affected communities better monitor, detect, and address PFAS,” EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler stated on the agency’s website.
The EPA did lower a nonbinding limit for some PFAS in 2016. That was set at 70 parts per trillion. To get an idea of how small that amount is, think of it as 70 grains of sand in an Olympic-sized swimming pool or as traveling just 35 feet on a 93 million mile trip to the sun.
But the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has warned that PFAS can cause health problems in far smaller amounts.
Drinking Water Contamination
There has been increased concern of PFAS contamination in drinking water since the EPA required water systems to test for 10 of the chemicals. The testing, conducted between 2013 and 2015, found that about 1 in every 100 water systems in the country tested above the nonbinding limit for at least one PFAS on the EPA’s list.
Contamination at Factory Sites and Military Bases
Most drinking water contamination happens near factories that used PFAS in manufacturing or military bases, refineries or other places where firefighting foam was used.
The Environmental Working Group found that the drinking water of 16 million Americans in 33 states is contaminated with at least one PFAS. But the group based those numbers on tests at just 5,000 water utilities. Based on other data the group has examined, it estimates the total number of people affected could be as high as 110 million.
States, Communities and Individuals Have Filed Lawsuits over Contamination
States and cities have filed lawsuits against manufacturers or companies that used PFAS.
The state of Minnesota reached an $850 million settlement with 3M in 2018 as a result of the company having legally dumped PFAS in landfills near suburbs east of Minneapolis and St. Paul until the 1970s. At the time of the settlement, 3M faced at least 24 other lawsuits over PFAS contamination.
In 2017, DuPont and Chemours Co. paid $671 million to settle 3,550 personal injury claims over PFAS pollution. People had sued after PFAS from a Teflon plant in Parkersburg, West Virginia, polluted drinking water supplies.
In June 2023, 3M agreed to pay at least $10.3 billion and up to $12.5 billion to settle lawsuits for contamination of many U.S. public drinking water systems with PFAS used in many consumer products and firefighting foam. Also in the same month, DuPont de Nemours Inc., The Chemours Co. and Corteva Inc. agreed to a $1.18 billion settlement fund to compensate water providers in various states for PFAS contamination.
Consumer Products Containing PFAS
Their nonstick and water-resistant properties have made PFAS a go-to choice for products from food wrappers to firefighting foam. They are found in or used to make countless consumer goods that require durability and resistance to oil and water.
- Camping tents
- Certain types of dental floss
- Nonstick pans and utensils
- Pizza boxes
- Popcorn bags
- Sandwich wrappers
- Shoes and other leather products
- Some cosmetics
- Stain treatments for furniture and carpet
- Water and stain resistant clothing
Does Teflon Contain PFAS?
Teflon is the registered trademark and brand name of DuPont’s nonstick material commonly found in cookware. It is sometimes associated with worries about PFAS.
Teflon and other nonstick cookware is “not a significant source” of PFAS exposure, according to the American Cancer Society. The society also says Teflon is not suspected of causing cancer and that there are no known health risks of using Teflon-coated cookware.
Teflon’s chemical name is polytetrafluorethylene, or PTFE. It is not a PFAS.
But a PFAS called perfluorooctanoic acid was used to make Teflon until DuPont switched to another chemical in 2013. The PFAS burned off during the manufacturing process but may have left small traces behind.
Some environmental groups or regulators recommend tossing out nonstick pans made before 2013 or avoiding them all together.
How to Reduce Your Exposure
The most serious exposure may come from contaminated drinking water. You can check an interactive map from Northeastern University and the Environmental Working Group to see if water systems in your community have shown contamination.
You can also limit your exposure to everyday items that may contain or be made with PFAS by choosing alternatives whenever possible.
- Avoid processed and fast foods which may be packaged in PFAS wrappers.
- Be wary of stain-repellant clothes and treatment for furniture.
- Check labels on personal care products. Avoid those with “PTFE” or “Fluoro” ingredients.
- Skip microwave popcorn that can have PFAS packaging.
- Substitute stainless steel or cast-iron pans for nonstick cookware.
Blood tests can determine if you have been exposed to PFAS, but they cannot show if your medical condition is related to PFAS exposure. Tests also cannot predict if you will develop any health condition because you were exposed.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has a fact sheet to help you talk to your doctor if you are concerned about your PFAS exposure.