fire extinguisher

Our Modern Understanding of PFAS Effects on Humans

Rachel Lark - June 18, 2024

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Microplastics are at the center of most environmentalist conversations. They run rampant in ocean conservation, public safety and recycling infrastructure discourse. Their permeation is incomparable — except for the equally, if not more, pervasive per- and polyfluorinated substances (PFASs). These are dubbed “forever chemicals” for a reason, and PFAS effects on humans are severe.

These materials are notoriously hard to get out of soil and water, which means it harms biodiversity and seep into society. PFAS effects on humans are still being discovered, but recent regulatory action and bad press are making the issue the hottest it has been in history.

How PFAS Became a Public Health Crisis

The easiest way to detail the PFAS crisis is by explaining exactly how many products include forever chemicals. They are used in such diverse products that it makes sense how they seem to permeate everyone and everything. Here are only a few examples of sectors relying on PFAS:

  • Food takeout containers
  • Nonstick cookware
  • Waterproof fabrics
  • Toilet paper
  • Cleaning products
  • Sunscreen and other toiletries
  • Single-use water bottles
  • Firefighting foam

Every time you eat something from a to-go container or use specific toilet paper, you are getting PFAS into your body. A study revealed 89% of France’s water was contaminated because of around 21 toilet paper brands employing PFAS. So, not only are people eating and putting PFAS on their bodies, it is getting into wastewater. This causes issues for treatment plants trying to deliver clean resources to citizens. However, modern treatment methods are not savvy or precise enough to fully eliminate all PFAS. 

Clothes degrade. Litter seeps into waterways. Every time environmental factors put pressure on PFAS-infused products, a little fades into the planet. Another way PFAS enters humans is through trophic transfer. This describes a phenomenon of secondhand ingestion. For example, if a fish or plant absorbs PFAS in its diet, and humans consume these infected food sources, then humans become afflicted with high levels of PFAS.

Health Concerns Exacerbated by PFAS

As discussed, PFAS has numerous ways to enter human bodies and compromise health. What are the most vulnerable areas subject to the highest scrutiny in modern research?

Fertility

A study looked at how consistent exposure to PFAS could disrupt a person’s ability to become pregnant. Researchers took blood samples, and determined forever chemicals reduced chances of a successful pregnancy by 40%. It took a longer time for people with higher levels of PFAS in their blood to receive a positive pregnancy test than those with lower quantities.

It also confuses reproductive hormones, though research on this is still in its early stages. Experts are even looking into whether PFAS impacts children in the womb, suggesting people may have lower sperm counts or other fertility concerns.

Respiratory Health

As if the bad news about forever chemicals wasn’t enough to take your breath away, it could impact lung biology. Ailments like asthma and tissue inflammation are proven byproducts of PFAS irritation in respiratory systems in mice. Research determined significant biological changes after 14 weeks of consuming water with traces of PFAS.

Cancer

The National Cancer Institute has found links with PFAS to numerous cancer types, including:

  • Kidney
  • Testicular
  • Breast
  • Ovarian and endometrial
  • Prostate
  • Thyroid

Many of these assessments are still in their early stages, but PFAS is likely to exacerbate existing symptoms. For example, research was performed on service workers to see if repeated exposure to extinguishing liquid increased the likelihood of testicular cancer because of the amount of PFAS in firefighting tools. The link was clear.

Autoimmune Diseases

If all of these connections were not proof enough that PFAS damages the body, it could harm it enough to become a disease permanently impacting the immune system. An analysis of individuals in the Czech Republic revealed heightened intensities of allergies and eczemas. The possibility of catalyzing other autoimmune diseases is likely, given the degradation PFAS has on the body.

Learn more about other health effects of PFAS, such as liver damage and endocrine system disruption.

Remedying PFAS Effects on Humans

The first step to healing humans of PFAS is by changing industry. Forever chemicals do provide some benefits to consumer products, such as non-staining qualities and water resistance. In general, it helps prevent things from sticking to one another. However, there are more environmentally safe options, such as:

  • Silicones
  • Polyurethanes
  • Acrylates
  • Fatty acid derivatives
  • Silanes

Though these and other posited options have their own concerns, they are more manageable than the stealthiness and persistence of PFAS. Another option for citizens is to ignore products likely to contain PFAS or purchase items that specifically state they do not use it. Many places are banning it now or advertising it because their adverse impacts are becoming so mainstream — brands want the positive publicity of eliminating the ingredient. 

The PFAS effects on humans need healing now though — they are already in our systems. What are doctors and researchers doing to overcome the ailments they cause? As of 2024, there are currently no FDA-approved medications for treating PFAS-instigated illnesses.

Instead, medical professionals may only offer tips for attempting to minimize PFAS exposure and ingestion. The first is drinking filtered water. Though water companies are still working to refine PFAS elimination protocols, it is still better to be safe than sorry. Additionally, bring your own to-go containers when you eat out at restaurants to minimize the risk of food contamination. Finally, remain curious. Learning about recent studies in the field and raising awareness will be everyone’s greatest weapon in preventing further societal health problems.

A Chemical-Free Society

PFAS has become so ubiquitous in industry that it unintentionally became one of the most stealthy influences on human health in history. It is nearly invisible and plentiful with an immense desire to travel as far as it can, leaching into as many habitats and species as possible. 

Alternatives exist to phase out PFAS from the most suspect products and services, but doing so will require sweeping legislative action and collaboration on private and public fronts. Understanding this silent influence on human health is the first step — just because we cannot see it, doesn’t mean it isn’t jeopardizing well-being. 

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About the author

Rachel Lark

Rachel serves as the Assistant Editor of Environment.co. A true foodie and activist at heart, she loves covering topics ranging from veganism to off grid living.