PFAS: The ‘Forever Chemicals’ That Are Everywhere 

What to know about their potential harms and how to avoid them


PFAS (pronounced “Pee-faz”) are increasingly in the news these days. And for good reason: These so-called forever chemicals have been linked to a host of adverse health effects, and they’re hard to avoid because they’re so prevalent in the environment and in commonly used items, like some cookware and furnishings. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as well as several U.S. state governments are taking steps to address the issue of PFAS proliferation, but there are several things you can do now to minimize your exposure.

What are PFAS? 

PFAS (short for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances) are synthetic chemicals that were created in the 1940s for industrial and commercial applications. PFAS repel both liquids and oils and are stable when exposed to high heat and extreme pH values—characteristics that make them very practical for use in firefighting foams and industrial lubricants, for example, as well as in products that are nonstick, waterproof, and stain-resistant. Cookware often contains PFAS, as do many textiles, carpets, cosmetics, takeout containers, period and incontinence products, and dental floss, among other everyday items.

How are we exposed to PFAS?

In addition to the PFAS in our clothing, home furnishings, cooking utensils, food packaging, and other products we put on or in our bodies, we are also exposed to these chemicals when we breathe in dust that contains particles of PFAS from degraded household items. More insidiously, when products made with PFAS are discarded, these chemicals end up in the soil, oceans, lakes, rivers, and municipal and private-well water. So even if you manage to avoid buying PFAS-containing items (good luck!) you would still be exposed to them from drinking contaminated well or municipal water and eating plants, animals, and fish living on or in contaminated soil and water.

Why are PFAS referred to as “forever chemicals”?

PFAS persist in the environment because of their chemical structure. Unlike water, for example, which is easy to break into its constituent parts—hydrogen and oxygen—the carbon-fluorine bonds found in PFAS are extremely strong.

There are thousands of different PFAS, but only a few have been studied extensively, including the long-chain compounds PFOS and PFOA, both of which have been phased out in the U.S. due to health concerns. Although production and use of PFOS ended in 2002 and PFOA emissions and product content were phased out in 2015, these compounds remain in the environment, and many of us likely still have measurable amounts in our blood because their half-lives range from about four to nine years. Short- and ultra-short-chain PFAS have shorter half-lives than long-chain PFAS, but they also persist in the environment, and there are increasing concerns about their effects on human health as well.

Currently, the EPA recommends incineration to treat and dispose of PFAS, but safer and more effective methods are being explored, such as ball milling, supercritical water oxidation, and a newer technique that was described in the New York Times in 2022.

What are the adverse health effects of PFAS?

Epidemiological studies in humans, as well as animal studies, have found associations between exposure to PFAS and cancer, liver and kidney disease, altered immune and thyroid function, reproductive and developmental problems, insulin dysregulation, higher blood lipid levels, lower birthweight, and reduced vaccine response in children.

In 2014, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classified PFOA as a “possible human carcinogen” based on epidemiological evidence showing an association between the chemical and cancers of the testes and kidney. Bolstering the IARC’s decision, a 2023 federal study found elevated levels of the related compound PFOS in U.S. Air Force servicemen diagnosed with testicular cancer.

What’s being done to address this issue? 

In response to the proliferation and persistence of these chemicals, the EPA recently developed a PFAS Strategic Roadmap that outlines specific actions to protect the environment and hold polluters accountable. Among the “Key Actions” are the development of a national testing strategy, nationwide monitoring for PFAS in drinking water, restriction of PFAS discharges from industrial sources, and assessment of the impacts of PFAS on the aquatic environment. Notably, in March of 2023, the EPA announced proposed drinking water standards for six long- and short-chain PFAS that will, according to the agency, “prevent thousands of deaths and reduce tens of thousands of serious PFAS-attributable illnesses.”

Some states, including Connecticut, Maine, Michigan, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Washington, are also taking steps to address PFAS. For instance, Maine is banning the sale of new products containing these chemicals, and Washington has restricted the use of PFAS in firefighting foam and personal protective equipment.

A large number of fast-food/fast-casual restaurant chains, grocery chains, and other major retailers—from Chipotle, Sweetgreen, and Panera Bread, to Albertsons, Whole Foods, and Trader Joe’s, to Staples, Target, and Ikea—have also pledged in recent years to reduce or eliminate PFAS from their products and packaging. But it’s been hard to confirm their progress in all cases. Some companies were committed to phasing them out of certain (not all) products or packaging or just asked their vendors to avoid using PFAS in packaging.

On February 28, however, the FDA announced the end of this voluntary phase-out of PFAS in food packaging and said that these grease-proofing substances can no longer be sold for use in fast-food wrappers, take-out paperboard containers, microwave popcorn bags, pet food bags, and the like. But don’t assume that container of lo mein noodles in your next Chinese takeout order won’t contain PFAS—it can take up to 18 months for manufacturers to exhaust their stocks.

U.S. citizens and communities are taking matters into their own hands as well. According to a July 2023 article in Time magazine titled “‘Forever Chemical’ Lawsuits Could Ultimately Eclipse the Big Tobacco Settlement,” Dupont, 3M, and other manufacturers of PFAS have already paid out more than $10 billion in damages.

What can you do to avoid PFAS?

The first step in limiting your exposure to PFAS is to identify the biggest sources in your own home. For many of us, these will be our tap water, cookware, food containers, clothing, home furnishings, and personal care products. Some of these categories will be simpler and less expensive to address, while others may need to be implemented over time. Here’s a head start.

  • Filter your water. Tap water is one of the biggest and most unavoidable sources of PFAS. You can reduce your exposure by using a filtration system that specifically targets PFAS, such as those from Aquasana. The Environmental Working Group (EWG) found these four PFAS water filters to be most effective. Some bottled waters have also been found to contain PFAS—but according to a study by researchers at Johns Hopkins University, “purified” bottled water contained significantly less than “spring” water.
  • Avoid nonstick cookware. For decades, nonstick cookware was synonymous with Teflon™, which is the brand name for PTFE—a long-chain PFAS. PTFE and other nonstick coatings are no longer made with the now-banned PFOA, but many manufacturers (including Teflon) have simply switched to other PFAS that are less well studied. So don’t be fooled by products that claim to be “PFOA- and PFOS-free,” and instead consider cookware made from high-quality stainless steel, carbon steel, or cast iron. While none of these materials are as nonstick as those made with PFAS, you won’t need to use gobs of oil or butter if you follow proper cooking, seasoning, and cleaning techniques. As an added bonus, pans made from stainless steel, carbon steel, and cast iron can last a lifetime, whereas Teflon and other nonstick cookware often need to be replaced after several years of use.
  • Cut down on take-out food. PFAS have been frequently used in take-out paperboard containers, fast-food wrappers, and paper bowls and plates to help prevent greasy leakages. Until the FDA’s new ban on PFAS in food packaging is fully in effect, if you order in or take out from restaurants a lot, you can reduce your exposure to PFAS by transferring food out of the original packaging as quickly as possible, never reheating food in the original packaging, and storing leftovers in glass containers.
  • Avoid furnishings and other products that claim to be stain- or water-resistant. Unless they are labeled “PFAS-free,” clothing (typically outdoor and rain gear), rugs/carpets, and upholstered furniture are often treated with PFAS-containing chemicals. The Green Science Policy Institute maintains a list of products from these (and other) categories that have fulfilled the Institute’s PFAS-free eligibility standards.
  • Opt for personal care products that do not contain PFAS. A 2021 study in the journal Environmental Science & Technology Letters found high levels of fluorine (a chemical that indicates the probable presence of PFAS) in more than half of the 231 cosmetics they tested. If you routinely use cosmetics—especially waterproof mascara, liquid lipstick, and foundation, which were found to contain the highest levels of fluorine—check out EWG’s robust database of safer personal care products.

BOTTOM LINE: The adverse health effects of PFAS are concerning, especially since these chemicals are so ubiquitous. Environmental agencies in the U.S. and abroad are taking steps to limit the production of PFAS and develop safer ways to dispose of them, but individuals will have to be part of the solution as well. You can make a difference by putting pressure on the government (both local and national) to address the issue, supporting companies that produce PFAS-free items, and reducing your own use of products that contain these forever chemicals. The National Academies provide more information and guidance about PFAS.