The Unavoidable Reality of Forever Chemicals

The Unavoidable Reality of Forever Chemicals

Perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are a class of man-made chemicals that’ve been prominent in material production since the 1940s. Often referred to as “forever chemicals,” per/polyfluoroalkyl substances have an extremely strong chemical bond, making them impossible to be broken down in natural environments.

PFAS exist in nearly 15,000 forms and have been detected in a wide range of settings. The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (2022) reported that forever chemicals have been found in food, water, shampoo, cookware, clothing, floss, and even walls. Data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey discovered PFAS chemicals in most Americans, concluding that 97% of the country has trace amounts in their blood.

Although the long term effects of PFAS exposure remain predominantly unclear, The National Library of Medicine recently released a report disclosing the potential side effects to PFAS consumption. The research discovered ties between PFOA/PFAS and rising cancer rates, kidney disease, childbirth complications, negative alteration to immune function, obesity, infertility, and further health concerns.

Forever chemicals are now being used in “hundreds of types of products” (FDA, 2023). The National Resources Defense Council (2022) found traces in merchandise by Nordstrom, Costco, REI, Gap, and Kate Spade. Similar studies published by CBS (2023) have identified Lululemon and Athleta as brands to be utilizing these methods as well.

Public awareness of chemicals such as PFAS has led to an increased demand for “naturally” manufactured alternatives. These substitutes can be found for most generic household inventory, are often pricier, and advertise their superiority with labels such as “100% Natural.”

We’ve been led to believe this stamp guarantees clean production and therefore clean consumption, thus avoiding any presence of unnatural chemicals. Further analysis will reveal that’s not necessarily true.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) (2023) doesn’t regulate vendor’s use of the word “natural.” According to their official statement, “The agency has not objected to the use of the term if the food does not contain added color, artificial flavors, or synthetic substances,” leaving the definition and application of the phrase largely up to the interpretation of private companies.

Popular food, clothing, and cosmetic brands have been known to take advantage of the loose guidelines. Burt’s Bees was revealed to be among these after a 2022 lawsuit (Bruno v. Burt’s Bees Inc.) attacked the business’s “mislabeled” marketing technique. The class action suit states that the company “misled customers into believing that the Products are not made with synthetic, toxic chemicals like PFAS, when in fact the Products are made with such chemicals.” Legal action came from customers who’d purchased Burt’s Bees products in an effort to avoid “dangerous chemicals,” ultimately choosing the brand after being attracted to the company’s label; “100% Natural.” The plaintiffs claim their “independent testing revealed that the products contain organofluoride, an indicator of PFAS, which are neither natural nor sustainable.” Car seat manufacturer Chicco, popcorn company BOOMCHICKAPOP, and menstrual product retailer Thinx have all faced similar legal pressure targeted at nontransparent marketing methods.

A study published by the Library of Medicine (2022) proves that avoiding select products and making conscious purchases won’t entirely prevent subjection to forever chemicals. Their research reveals that the levels of PFOA and PFOS found in rainwater substantially exceeds the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s drinking water standards. The report urges for reformation, stating that it is “vitally important that PFAS uses and emissions are rapidly restricted.”

In an interview with an Emory University representative in September of 2023, university researcher Donghai Liang (PHD) warns it’s become difficult to get ahead of PFAS exposure. She and a team of colleagues have been conducting research into the role of per/polyfluoroalkyl substances in maternity. “When babies are born, we would all like to think of them as a blank slate, not yet impacted by any of the negative and scary things in the world. But in this study, we found that the babies were already exposed to ‘forever chemicals’ before they were born.” Dr. Liang’s findings link this early exposure to both prenatal complications and premature births.

According to co-corresponding author and Emory School of Medicine professor Anne Dunlop, the team has plans of progression. She says the next step is to “investigate where the mothers and children in our study are being exposed to most of these chemicals.” Dunlop reveals their focus will be on “water, food, cleaning products, and beauty products.”

Entirely avoiding forever chemicals isn’t realistic, but limitation through awareness is possible. As major research into the negative effects begins to emerge, an increasing number of corporations have pledged to manufacture goods without the use of PFAS, or take the necessary steps to phase them out of production. With alternate options at our disposal, the most we can do is make an effort to choose with our health in mind.




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