A researcher testing for the health effects of PFAS.

Health Effects of PFAS: A Deep Dive Into Forever Chemicals

Steve Russell - March 20, 2024

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Per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) have become a growing concern in recent years due to their widespread use and potential health implications. These synthetic chemicals, commonly found in various household products, industrial applications, clothing and even the environment, have raised alarms among scientists and health experts. The health effects of PFAS compounds are extensive, leading to restrictions and even bans in some regions. 

What are PFAS?

PFAS are a group of human-made chemicals used in various industries since the 1950s. The unique properties of PFAS, such as their resistance to heat, water and oil, make them ideal for applications like non-stick cookware, clothing, food packaging and furniture. 

What distinguishes these substances is their persistence in the environment and the human body. Commonly referred to as “forever chemicals,” these chemicals don’t readily break down over time, leading to bioaccumulation in organisms and potential long-term exposure for humans. Scientists have detected PFAS contamination in water sources, soil and even human blood across the globe. 

Due to concerns about their health implications, they’ve garnered significant attention. Efforts are underway to better understand these risks and develop strategies for mitigating their impact on human health and the environment. 

Where Can I Get Exposed to PFAS?

While various regions and regulatory bodies have phased or restricted the use of PFAS compounds, they may still be present in existing products, including:

  • Non-stick cookware: Teflon-coated pots and pans are a common source of PFAS. While many manufacturers have phased out the use of some specific PFAS in cookware, older non-stick items may still contain these substances.
  • Water-repellent outdoor gear: Waterproof jackets, outdoor clothing and shoes often use PFAS to make the products water-resistant. 
  • Stain-resistant fabrics: Carpets, upholstery and other textiles treated to be stain-resistant may contain PFAS. 
  • Food packaging: Some manufacturers use PFAS in food packaging materials, such as microwave popcorn bags, fast-food wrappers and containers for greasy or oily foods.
  • Firefighting foam: Aqueous film-forming foams (AFFF) for firefighting, especially in situations involving flammable liquids, may contain PFAS.
  • Cleaning products: Certain cleaning products, such as stain repellents and carpet cleaners, may contain PFAS.
  • Cosmetics: Some cosmetic products, like foundation and mascara often contain PFAS for their water-resistant properties.
  • Electronics: Many technology companies use PFAS to manufacture electronic components, including semiconductors and electrical connectors.
  • Dental floss: PFAS often coats dental floss products for smoothness and glide.
  • Waterproofing agents: Products like water-resistant sprays for shoes, textiles and gear may contain PFAS.

The Health Effects of PFAS

Research is ongoing to fully comprehend the health risks associated with exposure. Some of the most common health complications include:

Endocrine Disruption

Researchers have linked PFAS to endocrine disruption, affecting proper hormone function in the human body. This disruption can lead to adverse effects on reproductive health, development and metabolism. 

Immune System Impact

There’s growing evidence that PFAS exposure can compromise the immune system. Studies have shown associations between elevated PFAS levels and a weakened immune response, suggesting that exposure to PFAS may suppress the immune system, making individuals more susceptible to infections and diseases. Prolonged exposure may compromise the body’s ability to fight off illnesses.

Researchers don’t fully understand the exact mechanisms behind these immunotoxic effects, but believe that PFAS may interfere with immune cell function and antibody production. This interference may compromise the body’s ability to defend against pathogens.

Liver Damage

The liver plays a crucial role in filtering and detoxifying chemicals in the body. PFAS accumulation in the liver is a well-documented effect of prolonged exposure, and certain compounds are linked to liver damage and disease. 

PFOA, in particular, has been associated with increased liver enzyme levels and hepatomegaly. The liver plays a crucial role in detoxification, and the presence of PFAS may disrupt normal liver function, leading to inflammation and long-term damage. Chronic exposure may contribute to the development of liver conditions like hepatocellular carcinoma.

Cancer Risk

One of the most significant concerns linked to PFAS exposure is the potential for an increased risk of cancer. Studies have suggested associations between certain PFAS compounds, such as perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS), and the development of cancers, particularly kidney and testicular cancers. 

Scientists are still investigating which PFAS mechanisms may contribute to carcinogenesis, but their ability to accumulate in tissues and remain in the body for extended periods raises concerns about the long-term health effects of PFAS.

Reproductive and Developmental Issues

Studies have linked PFAS exposure to adverse reproductive and developmental outcomes. Research indicates that exposure to certain PFAS compounds may be associated with reduced fertility, delayed puberty and complications during pregnancy, including low birth weight and preterm birth. 

Additionally, PFAS can cross the placental barrier, potentially affecting fetal development. Researchers believe the impact of these compounds on the endocrine system and hormonal balance contributes to these reproductive and developmental effects.

Cholesterol Levels

Some studies suggest exposure to certain compounds may impact lipid metabolism and cholesterol levels, potentially increasing the risk of cardiovascular disease. PFAS is also associated with elevated levels of total cholesterol, low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol and triglycerides. The disruption of lipid regulation by PFAS may contribute to atherosclerosis and other cardiovascular complications. These effects may pose additional health risks to individuals with prolonged exposure.

Kidney Function

Emerging research has implicated PFAS exposure in adverse effects on kidney function. Certain PFAS compounds, including PFOA and PFOS, are associated with an increased risk of kidney disease and decreased kidney function. Studies have revealed elevated levels of these substances in individuals with impaired kidney function, suggesting a potential role in renal dysfunction. 

PFAS-induced kidney damage may result from accumulation in renal tissues, leading to inflammation and oxidative stress. Additionally, its ability to disrupt hormonal balance and immune function may contribute to renal complications. Ongoing investigations seek to unravel the precise mechanisms and establish a clearer understanding of this occurrence. 

Regulatory Measures

Government and regulatory bodies worldwide are increasingly recognizing the need to address the risks associated with PFAS. Some countries, particularly those in the European Union, have implemented restrictions on using certain PFAS compounds, and research continues to understand the full scope of their health effects.

Scientists are making efforts to develop alternatives and to improve waste management practices to prevent environmental contamination. Additionally, monitoring and testing for PFAS in drinking water sources and consumer products are becoming more widespread.

Avoid Forever Chemicals

The health effects of PFAS are a complex and evolving research area. While scientific understanding of these substances continues to grow, it’s essential to stay informed about potential risks and to advocate for policies and practices that prioritize public health. Minimizing exposure through informed consumer choices and proper waste disposal is critical in mitigating the potential health impacts of these pervasive chemicals.

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About the author

Steve Russell

Steve is the Managing Editor of Environment.co and regularly contributes articles related to wildlife, biodiversity, and recycling. His passions include wildlife photography and bird watching.