How to protect yourself from PFAS exposure

20 October 2023:

In this blog, we examine ways that you can reduce your exposure to PFAS.

First up, what are PFAS? PFAS is an acronym comprising a very large family of more than 12,000 synthetic chemicals. PFAS are also known as ‘forever chemicals’ and ‘everywhere chemicals’ for their ability to survive high temperature environments, to repel water and oil, and their resistance to chemical degradation.

You can find PFAS in furniture, outdoor clothing, non-stick cookware, carpet, paper and food packaging, personal items like mascara, lipstick, contact lenses, dental floss, and 20 per cent of medicines. They are also present in particular types of firefighting foam. PFAS contaminants take a very long time to break down naturally, and once they enter the environment, they have the capacity for widespread dispersal and environmental pollution.

Why do you want to avoid contact with PFAS chemicals? For an answer to this question, have a look at another blog in our series, titled: Is PFAS contamination the water quality issue of our time?

Your first line of defence in minimising your exposure to PFAS contaminants is to avoid purchasing items that are labelled as stain or water resistant. If you can, choose washable items as an alternative. And if you can’t, choose items that are labelled ‘PFAS free’. However, be aware that when you choose ‘PFAS free’, it doesn’t necessarily mean PFAS safe, as most companies applying this label mean PFAS in the item is at quantities less than 100 parts per million. This amount is still well above levels considered safe, particularly in relation to drinking water guidelines.

The grease repellent coatings in take away food packaging and pizza boxes may contain PFAS, so avoid these where possible. Also exercise caution around microwave popcorn bags as well as grease proof paper.

Cookware that is marketed as ‘non-stick’ or ‘teflon coated’ is also best avoided. Look for ‘PFAS free’ or ‘certified non-toxic’. Or use stainless steel cookware.

Another strong tip is to look out for and avoid using personal care products such as dental floss and cosmetics whose ingredient list includes ‘flouro’, ‘perflouro’, ‘halon’, ‘halo’ or ‘teflon’. The presence of these products is a strong marker for the addition of PFAS chemistry.

Be wary of products that are labelled as ‘PFOA free’. PFOA is just one of thousands of PFAS compounds, and the chances are that manufacturers have simply substituted PFOA with another class of PFAS chemical.

Of course, industry also needs to do its bit to identify effective alternatives to PFAS, and it should be noted that companies like Patagonia and Levi Strauss are showing industry leadership by eliminating PFAS chemicals from their supply chain. Other global brands are committing to a time bound PFAS phase out, but from the bulk there is relative inaction.

Fortunately, there are many organisations out there are who are looking closely at how industry is responding to the need for PFAS elimination within the supply chain, and they do make our search for PFAS free products a little easier.

Here are some useful sites that we discovered during the course of researching this blog:

Whilst action might seem slow, the approach being taken by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in March 2023 to propose a new national primary drinking water regulation for six types of PFAS chemicals is a reassuring step in the right direction. In addition, the USA is also expected to initiate federal management of PFAS in all imported articles from February 2024 under the Toxic Substances Control Act.

The European Union is considering a blanket ban on non-essential use of PFAS, and some US states are ahead of the curve and have already mandated future bans on non-essential PFAS use.

In Australia, a new Australian Industrial Chemical Environmental Management Standard (IChEMS) will stop the import, manufacture and use of some types of PFAS within the next two years.

Lastly, it’s worth noting that companies don’t always disclose when they use PFAS chemicals as many governments allow them to protect ‘trade secrets’ relating to chemistries as propriety information.

If you are unsure and you can’t find the answers you seek, contact the companies directly and ask for clarification. It is only when manufacturers start fielding these types of questions regularly that we can help to achieve consumer ‘pull-through’ driven change.

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