How to Mitigate Your Exposure to 'Forever Chemicals' in Food, According to Experts

Here's how you can keep yourself (and your family) safe.

<p>Food & Wine / Candice Bell / <a href="">annick vanderschelden photography</a> / Getty Images</p>

Food & Wine / Candice Bell / annick vanderschelden photography / Getty Images

There's been about a seven-fold increase in Google searches for the term "PFAS" over the last five years. When you do that quick search, you're met with a deluge of scientific data, research, and a whole lot of jargon — including some rather alarming headlines about PFAS showing up in our water, our food, and in our blood. But what exactly is PFAS, and just how concerned should we be?

"'I've been worried about it, and the science panel has been worried about this being potentially an issue for more people for a long time," Scott Bartell, professor of environmental and occupational health at the University of California, Irvine, who's been studying and quantifying human exposures and health effects caused by environmental contaminants, including PFAS, shared. "I think the health effects [are] becoming more and more clear over time."

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But, before you spiral too deep into despair about PFAS, Bartell, and a few other experts in the field, say it's more essential to be informed. So, here's what you need to know about PFAS chemicals and how you can mitigate your own risk.

What does PFAS stand for?

PFAS stands for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances. As the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) explains, PFAS "are widely used, long-lasting chemicals, components of which break down very slowly over time," which is how they also earned their catchier nickname, "Forever Chemicals."

What are PFAS chemicals, and how are they used?

PFAS chemicals, which number in the thousands, are all manmade and have been commonly used in consumer products since the 1950s. The Regulatory Council of Interstate Technology explained, these chemicals are popular in consumer goods as they "impart oil, water, stain, and soil repellency," as well as "thermal stability and friction reduction." That includes many of those moisture-wicking fabrics found in athleticwear, waterproof mascara, electronics, aviation, and even in carpets. And, specifically for the Food & Wine audience, PFAS chemicals are also often found as a part of non-stick cookware and on food packaging to make it grease and water resistant.

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"PFAS is one of those super chemicals that can do just about anything, from making sure that your food doesn't stick to your pan to letting you wear a piece of clothing that can wick away water and just about anything in between," Dr. David Nadler,  research assistant professor at New York Institute of Technology, said. "History shows us that these types of super chemicals that can do anything tend to be the most hazardous."

What are the known health effects of PFAS chemicals on people?

Exposure to PFAS chemicals is associated with several adverse health effects. The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) shared several of what it calls "potential outcomes" from PFAS exposure, as the science is still developing: Changes in cholesterol and liver enzyme levels; Small changes in infant birth weight; and Changes in the immune system and response to certain vaccines.

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"One of the main outcomes is suppression of your immune responses after you get a vaccine," Dr. Jamie DeWitt, the director of the Environmental Health Sciences Center at Oregon State University, who has long studied the human immune response to PFAS, said. "The type of suppression that has been observed from PFAS and other environmental chemicals would be considered clinically to be mild to moderate. It doesn't mean that people are going to immediately get sick and immediately have problems, but we know from studies of people who are mildly to moderately immunosuppressed that there is an increased risk of infection and there is an increased risk of other types of diseases such as cancer."

What are the current government regulations around PFAS chemicals in the U.S.?

In the United States, regulation of PFAS is evolving. In April, the EPA  set new maximum contaminant levels for PFOA and PFOS (which both fall under PFAS chemicals) in drinking water to 4.0 parts per trillion, individually. The goal, however, is to hit zero, as the EPA also announced that no level of PFAS exposure is safe.

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"Drinking water contaminated with PFAS has plagued communities across this country for too long," EPA Administrator Michael S. Regan said in a statement at the time. To help make this a reality, the EPA is making $1 billion available to states and territories to implement PFAS testing and to implement new treatment systems, CBS reported.

In March, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) also announced that certain PFAS chemicals "are no longer being sold by manufacturers" on food packaging as part of a voluntary phase-out. "The substances containing PFAS were applied to fast-food wrappers, microwave popcorn bags, take-out paperboard containers, pet food bags, as well as other similar types of packaging," the FDA added. And while this was a voluntary effort, some states have taken it a step further to completely ban the chemicals from food products.

How can the average person avoid exposure to PFAS chemicals?

Reducing exposure to PFAS can be challenging due to widespread use. However, as the experts we spoke to noted, there are ways people can limit their exposure. For starters, you can look up if a product contains PFAS on websites like this Clean Water Action Guide. For food, the guide suggests looking for products that are "BPI certified," which means they are certified by the Biodegradable Products Institute, which requires all compostable food packaging to be PFAS-free. It also notes you can search the Center for Environmental Health website, which frequently updates its database of PFAS-free food packaging.

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Additionally, DeWitt noted you might want to learn more about the foods that have been shown to have the highest levels of PFAS chemicals, including many sports drinks, processed meats, chips, and bottled water, as well as many seafoods and freshwater fish, so you can make informed decisions for yourself.

Though none of our experts specifically said they'd never use non-stick pans again, all three independently said they'd choose to use butter or olive oil in a pan rather than getting a non-stick version.

"If you cook with olive oil or butter, stuff doesn't stick. I don't need a perfectly formed egg anyway for my home," Dr. DeWitt shared with a laugh. "I do use recipes from Food & Wine, but it doesn't look absolutely beautiful. But that's OK. It's just going to go into my belly, so it doesn't really matter." 

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