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Forever chemicals: What to know about PFAS

A woman drinks from a reusable water bottle.

Feb. 23, 2024—If you've seen reports that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently proposed listing some types of PFAS—sometimes called "forever chemicals"—as hazardous, you might be wondering just what these chemicals are and how they might affect your health. Here are answers to common questions about PFAS, with information from the EPA, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and other experts.

What are PFAS?

PFAS stands for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances. These manufactured chemicals have been used in consumer and industrial products since the 1940s. PFAS are sometimes called forever chemicals because they break down very slowly. Over time, they can build up in the environment—and in the human body.

Since PFAS are used so widely, most people in the United States have been exposed to them. EPA reports that the chemicals have been found in water, air and soil.

How about food? FDA tests the U.S. food supply for PFAS. Only a small fraction of foods tested have had detectable levels.

PFAS are also found in some cleaning products, fabrics and paints, kitchenware, food packaging, and personal care products.

People might be exposed in a variety of ways, such as:

  • Working in firefighting or chemical manufacturing and processing.
  • Drinking water or eating foods that contain PFAS.
  • Breathing air contaminated with PFAS.
  • Using products made with or packaged in materials containing PFAS.

How do PFAS affect health?

Scientists are still studying the effects of PFAS. Most studies focus on just a few types of PFAS. People can be exposed to the chemicals in diverse ways and at different stages of their lives. Plus, the types of PFAS and how they are used change over time.

However, high levels of certain PFAS have been linked to health problems, such as:

  • Decreased fertility and disrupted hormones.
  • Developmental delays in children.
  • Increased risk of some cancers, including prostate, kidney and testicular cancers.
  • Reduced vaccine response and ability to fight infection.
  • Increased cholesterol levels.
  • Increased risk of obesity.

How can I avoid PFAS?

There's no way to completely eliminate exposure to PFAS. But you may be able to reduce your exposure. Here's how:

  • If your drinking water may contain these chemicals, use a water filter certified to remove PFAS.
  • Check local advisories before eating locally caught seafood or wild game.
  • Dust regularly with a wet mop, and vacuum carpets—PFAS may be found in household dust.
  • Get rid of nonstick pots and pans that are cracked or chipped.
  • Cut back on fast food and takeout, as these containers are often coated with PFAS.
  • Avoid purchasing stain-resistant carpets and upholstery.

Learn more about how your home and environment can affect your health in our Environmental Health topic center.


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