The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is now recommending that your healthcare provider test your blood for levels of PFAS, the toxic “forever chemicals” used for decades in nonstick cookware, fast-food packaging, water-resistant household products, fire-fighting and many industrial applications.
PFAS chemicals in highly exposed populations have been linked to ulcerative colitis, diagnosed high cholesterol, thyroid disease, testicular cancer, kidney cancer, low birthweight babies and pregnancy-induced hypertension, although studies are inconclusive and still ongoing. Researchers estimated that PFAS exposure may have contributed to about 6.5 million deaths in the U.S. from 1999-2018, primarily those caused by cancer and heart disease.
The tests the CDC suggests are not to determine if you have PFAS in your system, however. Practically everybody already does. Studies have shown that more than 98% of Americans have at least one PFAS in their blood. PFAS have been found in drinking water, well water, soil, freshwater fish, alligators, manatees, even rainwater.
Nor are they to help diagnose you specifically, as the dangers from PFAS are cumulative over time and nearly impossible to pin to any one person’s ailment. But they will help researchers study communities and populations for trends to aid in more studies of the dangers.
What are PFAS, or ‘forever chemicals’?
PFAS refers to a family of more than 12,000 types of synthetic chemical compounds. They were invented in 1938 when a chemist accidentally created a slippery substance that would later become the foundation of the miraculous and popular line of Teflon nonstick pots and pans.
PFAS have incredible water-resistant properties which makes them excellent for use in cookware, stain repellents, paints and coatings, cosmetics, toothpaste, water-resistant clothing, grease-resistant fast-food packaging, cleaning products, fire-retarding foam, medical equipment, electrical wiring and many industrial uses.
Unfortunately, those same qualities also make PFAAS virtually indestructible and long-lasting since they don’t completely degrade in the environment, or in your body. That’s why they’re called “forever chemicals.”
What does PFAS stand for?
Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances.
What are PFOA and PFOS?
Perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) are the two most studied PFAS chemicals. PFOA was a product primarily used by DuPont, while PFOS was primarily used by 3M.
Due to concerns about their persistence in the environment and potential for toxicity, DuPont, 3M, and other manufacturers reached an agreement with the EPA in 2006 to phase out PFOA and PFOS in the U.S.
Do PFAS chemicals cause cancer?
Studies have not yet been conclusive, but several have linked PFAS exposure to a wide range of health issues in animals including:
- Increases in cholesterol levels
- Kidney and testicular cancer
- Decreases in birth weights
- Lowered vaccine protection in children
Other studies have linked PFAs to ulcerative colitis, thyroid disease and pregnancy-induced hypertension, but the connections aren’t as certain.
Do I have PFAS in my blood?
In EPA data released in November, hundreds of water systems around the country providing drinking water to about 46 million people were found to have PFAS contaminants, more than one in four public drinking water systems. PFAS can be found in air, soil, water, blood, urine, breast milk and umbilical cord blood, according to the Florida Department of Health.
The levels of PFOA and PFOS have dropped in recent years, according to the EPA, thanks to some U.S. manufacturers voluntarily passing them out in the 2000s, but some products still use them and experts say the newer PFAS developed to replace them also may have similarly harmful qualities.
How do people get exposed to PFAS?
Mostly through food and water, the CDC said, although community levels can vary widely. The highest levels are found in communities with facilities that use or have used PFAS such as military bases, airports, some farms or factories, wastewater treatment plants, landfills and more.
The CDC lists potential sources such as:
- Drinking water from PFAS-contaminated municipal sources or private wells
- Eating food (e.g., meat, dairy, and vegetables) produced near places where PFAS were used or made
- Eating fish caught from water contaminated by PFAS (PFOS, in particular)
- Eating food from some types of grease-resistant paper or packaging such as popcorn bags, fast food containers, pizza boxes, and candy wrappers
- Drinking baby formula mixed with PFAS-contaminated water or breast milk from people exposed to PFAS
- Swallowing contaminated soil
PFAS may also be ingested from exposure to some consumer products such as stain-resistant carpets and fabrics, water-resistant clothing, cleaning products, personal care products such as shampoo, dental floss, nail polish and eye makeup, and paints varnishes and sealants.
How long do PFAS chemicals stay in the body?
From a few days to eight years or more, according to the CDC, depending on the specific PFAS. Some chemicals can remain in the body for decades.
How much PFAS is safe for humans?
None, according to the latest EPA guidelines. In 2022 the agency cut the safe level of chemical PFOA down to four “parts per quadrillion” and reduced the safe level of PFOS by a factor of 3,500. Basically, if the levels of PFIA and PFOS can be detected, they aren’t safe.
There are currently no approved medical treatments available to reduce PFAS in the body, according to the CDC.
If I have high levels of PFAS in my blood, does that mean I will get sick?
Not necessarily, and not immediately. Exactly how much PFOA or PFOS it takes to harm someone is unknown.
PFAS are bioaccumulative, which means they build up in living tissue over time before they start to impact your bodily systems, and your community may not have as high a concentration as others. When the EPA released its new advisories, it said they were designed to protect pregnant women, young children, and the elderly over a lifetime of constant exposure.
The CDC recommends that your healthcare provider consider your exposure history and any results from local water testing before suggesting PFAS testing for you.
“PFAS blood testing results do not provide information for treatment or predict future health problems,” the CDC said.
“When you look at that laundry list of health effects that have been linked to PFAS, it doesn’t mean you’re going to get that,” said Courtney Carignan, an exposure scientist and environmental epidemiologist at Michigan State University. “Everyone’s risk factors are different. But you can reduce your risk by reducing your exposure and getting your drinking water tested.”
Where did the EPA find PFAS pollutants in Florida?
This map shows water systems included in the EPA’s records, as of Nov. 9. It’s based on boundaries developed by SimpleLab, a water-testing company. Click on a system to see the number of pollutants detected at or above the EPA’s minimum reporting levels and how much the most concentrated pollutant exceeded those levels. If you don’t see a map, click here.
Of about 3,200 systems included so far, 854 measured at least one PFAS compound above the EPA’s reporting levels, according to a USA TODAY analysis of the data. That’s almost 27%, an increase from August’s update of the data.
Many municipal water agencies already test for PFAS.
Last year 3M agreed to a $10.3 billion lawsuit settlement with a global chemical company and about 300 communities, including Stuart, Florida, that were seeking funds to purify their water from PFAS pollution. Other cities such as Titusville are testing their water to see if they qualify. Firefighters and other first responders who believe the chemicals impacted their health have also filed suits.
How can I reduce the amount of PFAS I consume?
Contact your local provider to find out what they’re doing to reduce PFAS contamination. If you have a private well, have it tested.
Avoid nonstick cookware, waterproof clothing and grease-resistant food wrappers, according to the D.C. Water and Sewer Authority. The Green Science Policy Institute and the Environmental Working Group maintain lists of products without harmful chemicals. Switching to bottled water may help, but bottled water might also contain PFAS.
Check for water advisories for water bodies where you fish.
You also may want to consider installing in-home filtration systems that have been proven to remove the chemicals. The EPA recommends:
- Activated carbon treatment: Generally the most affordable option, these filters remove some PFAS and can be installed on a household unit or on individual faucets and appliances.
- Ion exchange treatment: These systems can cost upwards of $1,000 to $2,000 and are generally more effective than activated carbon.
- High-pressure membranes: Reverse osmosis filtration systems range in price but cost a few hundred dollars on average. These systems are usually 90% effective at removing a range of PFAS.
If cost is an issue, there also are pitcher filters available that are effective for removing PFAS from tap water.
Contributors: Kyle Bagenstose, USA TOPAY, Katie Kustura, The Daytona Beach News-Journal