PFAS: What to Know

Medically Reviewed by Jabeen Begum, MD on May 08, 2024
11 min read

PFAS stands for perfluoroalkyl or polyfluoroalkyl substances, a group of chemicals that have properties that allow them to repel water, dirt, and oil. You may know them by an older term “PFCs,” or perfluorochemicals.

Manufacturers use PFAS to make everyday household products, as well as things in industries like:

  • Aerospace
  • Construction
  • Electronics
  • The military
  • Firefighting

Dubbed “forever chemicals,” PFAS chemicals don't break down easily over time and dissolve in water. Because of that, some scientists are concerned that these chemicals could build to levels that could harm the environment -- and your body. While there are studies that show evidence of this, we need more research to be sure of their effects on people.

Because of the concerns, eight major chemical companies entered into an agreement called the PFOA Stewardship Program to stop production of certain PFAS in the U.S. But they can still come in through imported products, and U.S. manufacturers continue to make and use other PFAS. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued regulations for these manufacturers and processors. They must inform the EPA of any new uses for PFAS before moving ahead with them.

Also known as perfluorooctanoic acid, PFOA is a human-made chemical. It's part of the same class of chemicals as PFAS. You’ll find PFOA in products that resist sticking, heat, water, stains, and grease.

The most famous brand name for products with resistant qualities is Teflon. It’s a coating mainly used on cookware, but it’s found in many other consumer goods.

Other products made with PFOA include stain-resistant carpets, water-repellent clothes, paper and cardboard packaging, ski wax, and foams used to fight fires. PFOA is also created when other chemicals break down.

PFOA works well in these products because it’s so stable. But that also means it lasts a long time in the environment -- and in people.

PFAS from foods or drinks build up in your body and stay there for a long time. Some studies suggest that high levels of PFAS can lead to things like:

  • Changes to cholesterol and higher cholesterol levels
  • Developmental effects or delays in fetuses and children
  • Low birth weight
  • Early puberty
  • Changes in the bones of children
  • Childhood obesity
  • Decreased fertility
  • Changes in the body’s hormones
  • Changes to your immune system, making it harder to fight infections and reducing how effective vaccines may be
  • Thyroid problems and thyroid disease
  • A higher chance of kidney, prostate, or testicular cancer
  • Changes in blood pressure during pregnancy
  • Liver damage
  • Ulcerative colitis

Whether you are affected or how affected you may be by PFAS in your body depends on a lot of factors such as:

  • How much PFAS you were exposed to (dosage)
  • How often you were exposed 
  • How long you were exposed 
  • How sensitive your body is to PFAS
  • Your health and access to health care

Research continues so that we can learn more about the relationship between PFAS and your health.

Are PFAS chemicals linked to high blood pressure?

Some studies have tied PFAS chemicals to high blood pressure.

In a 2022 study, researchers checked blood samples from more than 1,000 middle-aged women of various races and ethnicities each year between 1999 and 2017. The women didn’t have high blood pressure at first.

By the end of the study, the researchers found that those with higher levels of PFAS in their blood were more likely to have high blood pressure than those with lower levels.

The researchers say their findings suggest that the chemicals may play an “underappreciated” role in women’s risk for heart and blood vessel diseases.

Other research suggests that high levels of PFAS may raise the odds for high blood pressure in pregnant women, a condition called preeclampsia.

Also, a 2020 study of over 15,000 young adults (ages 20 to 39) in Italy linked exposure to PFAS through drinking water with increased blood pressure. The researchers say more studies need to be done to confirm the finding.

You can be exposed to low levels of PFAS chemicals through:

  • Swallowing contaminated soil or dust 
  • Consuming contaminated water and food, including fish
  • Breathing contaminated air

You could also be exposed by using:

  • Products packaged with materials that contain PFAS
  • Products processed with equipment that has PFAS
  • Some types of foam fire extinguishers
  • Grease-resistant paper or food wrappers
  • Some nonstick cookware
  • Some personal care products such as shampoo and nail polish, among others
  • Ski wax
  • Products that have been made stain- or water-resistant, such as carpets and upholstered furniture

Are PFAS chemicals in your water?

PFAS have water- and oil-repelling properties. Because of this, higher levels may be found in water supplies near places that make, dispose of, or use PFAS.

These can include:

  • Public water systems
  • Drinking water wells
  • Lakes and ponds

In some communities, PFAS may seep into the water supply through groundwater runoff. Ask your local government for your area’s drinking water quality report so you can learn about your local water supply. At least 45% of U.S. tap water may be contaminated, according to recent studies.

Does your makeup contain PFAS?

You might also absorb PFAS through your makeup. PFAS are used in cosmetic products to condition and smooth out the skin so it can appear shiny. PFAS can also affect the consistency and texture of the product. A 2021 study tested 231 cosmetic products. More than half contained PFAS.

The types of makeup that contain PFAS are:

  • Foundations
  • Waterproof mascaras
  • Lip products
  • Lotions
  • Cleansers
  • Nail polish
  • Shaving cream
  • Eyeliner
  • Eyeshadow

PFAS might be listed on the ingredient list as PTFE (polytetrafluoroethylene), perfluorooctyl triethoxysilane, perfluorononyl dimethicone, perfluorodecalin, and perfluorohexane.

Are PFAS chemicals in your food?

PFAS can seep into food, especially through contaminated water, soil, or air. Over time, the chemicals may also build up in animals and plants that come in contact with PFAS.

These can include:

  • Seafood like fish and shellfish
  • Meat
  • Dairy
  • Grains
  • Carbonated water
  • Noncarbonated bottled water

Low levels may also be found in foods like honey, eggs, and vegetables. The levels will depend on the type of food and specific PFAS chemicals involved.

Is PFAS in your food packaging?

The FDA allows manufacturers to safely use certain PFAS in food packaging because of its nonstick properties.

They can be found in:

  • Food wrappers
  • Microwaveable popcorn bags
  • Takeout containers
  • Pet food bags

PFAS use isn't limited to plastic or foam products though. They can also be found in plant fiber-based food packaging and takeout containers.

Which other everyday products may have PFAS?

Aside from consuming PFAS, they can also get into your system as you come in contact with certain everyday products made to be nonstick, stain repellent, or water repellent like:

  • Carpeting
  • Leather
  • Clothing
  • Packaging material
  • Nonstick cookware

Workers might also breathe in these substances at places that make PFAS or use them to create other products.

If you are breastfeeding, you might be concerned about PFAS and if they may affect your baby. Studies show that PFAS can make their way into breast milk and be passed to a nursing child. However, how much the baby gets depends on how much exposure the parent has to PFAS, how much is absorbed into the breast milk, and how long the baby breastfeeds before weaning.

That said, studies have not found any risks for breastfed babies related to PFAS in breast milk. Experts believe that the benefits of breastfeeding outweigh any potential PFAS-related risks. 

The only way you can tell for sure if you have PFAS in your body is through a special blood test. 

How common Is PFAS exposure?

According to the CDC, nearly everyone in the U.S. has been exposed to PFAS at some point in their life, so most people will have the chemicals in their blood. However, some people have more exposure than others, such as those who:

  • Work with PFAS or products that contain PFAS
  • Are firefighters, using turnout gear with PFAS 
  • Live in communities that have contaminated water supplies, with Black and Hispanic people making up a higher number of affected people

PFAS blood testing

PFAS blood testing is not a routine test. It’s only done if there’s a reason to suspect you could have high levels of PFAS in your body. While this test can tell you if and how much PFAS you have in your body, it can’t tell you if or how it will affect your health.

If blood testing isn’t available in your area but you’re concerned that you may have high levels of PFAS in your blood, the CDC, along with the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), has developed a PFAS Blood Level Estimation Tool. It isn’t a replacement for a blood test, but it may help you understand your risk.

How do you get rid of PFAS in your body?

Your body can eliminate (excrete) some PFAS over time through urine and, if you menstruate, through the blood flow. 

The FDA regularly performs PFAS testing on foods and products that are most commonly eaten or used. If the levels are detectable, the FDA does safety checks to see if they can harm human health or if there should be more investigation.

In 2016, the FDA barred the use of certain types of PFAS, called long-chain PFAS, from food packaging. It was found to have toxic effects on animal and human health.

To limit dangerous PFAS and PFOA exposure through contamination and overall use, the EPA has taken the following steps:

  • Spot potential problems PFAS can cause throughout its long life cycle.
  • Lower PFAS exposure and risk in the first place.
  • Hold manufacturers or facilities that pollute water and soil sources accountable. Your local government also can lower levels of PFOA in water with various treatments.
  • Continue research to understand the long-term harm for humans and the environment.
  • Develop methods to test, measure, remove, and destroy PFAS.
  • Protect vulnerable communities that are at risk for high PFAS exposure.
  • Require firms that manufacture or import substances like PFOA to alert the agency 90 days before they create new uses for these chemicals.

The efforts are working: PFOA levels in people are lower in the U.S. Researchers have seen a 40% decrease in PFOA in blood tested between 2000 and 2010.

If you think you or your loved one may have been exposed to high levels of PFAS, tell your doctor about it. If the exposure is through contaminated tap water, switch to using bottled water for drinking and cooking.

If you’re pregnant or planning to become pregnant and you’ve come in contact with PFAS, tell your obstetrician. They’ll have to closely monitor your blood pressure.

PFAS lawsuits

Several people and municipalities have launched PFAS lawsuits against various companies responsible for providing products or food that contain PFAS. For example, in January 2024, the state of Connecticut filed two lawsuits against 28 chemical manufacturers. One lawsuit is related to PFAS in firefighting foam, and the other is about PFAS in stain-, water-, and heat-resistant consumer products.

PFAS regulation in water

Since so much consumable water is contaminated with PFAS, the EPA set up the National Primary Drinking Water Regulation (NPDWR), which affects six PFAS. The NPDWR regulates how much PFAS are allowed to be in drinking water.

The EPA also established a timeline for compliance: 

  • Public water systems must complete initial monitoring by 2027 and they must provide the public with information about the levels. 
  • If the levels are higher than acceptable, the water systems have until 2029 to fix them.
  • If the water systems do not get their PFAS levels down to acceptable levels by 2029, they must notify the public.

You can’t avoid these chemicals completely, but you can do things to minimize how often you come in contact with them:

Check your drinking water. If you get your water from a public drinking water system, call your local water utility and ask if they’ve tested the water for PFAS levels. Compare results to either:

  • Your state’s standards for safe levels of PFAS
  • The EPA’s Health Advisory levels for PFOS and PFOA 

If you decide to get your water tested yourself, the agency says it’s important to get the results through a state-certified laboratory that uses testing methods developed by the EPA.

If you learn your drinking water has high levels of PFAs, you could:

  • Ask your water utility if it’s doing anything to lower the levels, like using filtration or changing the water source.
  • Call your state’s health department or environmental protection agency and ask what steps they recommend.
  • Buy and use a water filter that’s certified to remove PFAS.
  • Switch to using bottled water for drinking and cooking.
  • If you have a baby who is bottle fed, try to use premixed infant formula or prepare infant formula with another water source that doesn’t have PFAS.
  • Talk to your doctor if you are breastfeeding. The benefits seem to outweigh the risks of exposing your little one to PFAS through breastmilk. Until your water system improves, you could consider drinking bottled water instead of tap.

If you get your drinking water from a private well, you’ll need to test the quality of the water and check its PFAS levels regularly. You can call your state’s environmental or health agency to get a list of state-certified labs.

Be choosy about your seafood. If you eat locally sourced fish or shellfish, check your local fish advisories before you chow down.

Dust your home regularly. PFAS can collect in household dust. Vacuum carpets, use a wet mop on solid floors, and wipe other solid surfaces with a wet cloth.

Here are some other tips:

  • If you have nonstick pots and pans that are chipped or cracked, consider replacing them with stainless steel, ceramic, or iron cookware.
  • If you must use nonstick cookware, cook at lower temperatures, below 400 F.
  • Check dental floss for PFAS coatings.
  • Eat less fast food and takeout. Many of the containers have PFAS coating.
  • Remove food from grease-resistant packaging before heating or reheating.
  • Choose compostable packaging that’s BPI-certified.
  • Avoid bagged popcorn that you pop in your microwave. Buy corn kernels and heat them in a glass microwaveable popcorn popper instead.
  • Don’t use stain- or water-repellent treatments for new carpet and furniture.
  • Don’t wear stain- or water-repellent outerwear.
  • Check favorite product websites to see if the companies promote their products as PFAS-free.
  • Check labels and avoid products with “PTFE” or “fluoro” on the ingredients list.

How can I avoid PFAS in my diet?

It can be hard to avoid PFAS in your diet as these chemicals can be everywhere. The first step is to avoid nonstick cookware and fast food containers and wrappers. The FDA has tested several types of foods to see if some are higher in PFAS than others. They found that seafood may have the highest levels, compared to other foods. They include:

  • Clams
  • Cod
  • Pollock
  • Salmon
  • Tilapia
  • Tuna

However, the FDA is not recommending that people stop eating seafood because PFAS levels can vary tremendously and seafood is a good source of nutrition.

Almost everyone in the U.S. has been exposed to PFAS in their foods or through their surroundings. You can decrease the risk of exposure by making some lifestyle changes, such as getting rid of nonstick cookware; not using products that have been treated to be heat-, stain-, or water-resistant; and try to buy products that are certified to not have PFAS in them. The U.S. government is working to reduce the amount of these chemicals in the water, which should help decrease exposure overall.

What are examples of PFAS?

PFAS stands for perfluoroalkyl or polyfluoroalkyl substances. A few examples of PFAS are:

  • Perfluorooctanoic acid
  • Perfluorohexanoic acid
  • Perfluorodecanoic acid
  • Perfluorobutane sulfonic acid

Is PFAS a Teflon?

Teflon is a brand name for a type of coating that is used on nonstick cookware. It contains PFAS.

Does bottled water have PFAS?

Some types of bottled water do have PFAS. Currently, there is no way to tell if the bottled water contains PFAS without testing it.

Which foods are high in PFAS?

According to testing done by the FDA, some types of seafood might have the most PFAS, but how much depends on many variables.

Do eggs have PFAS?

Yes, chicken eggs can have PFAS.

Which shampoos have PFAS?

Although there are no absolute numbers, experts believe that about 40% of shampoos contain PFAS. Try to avoid shampoos that have extra ingredients, like perfumes, to lessen the chances of having a shampoo with PFAS.

Can the body rid itself of PFAS?

Yes, your body can excrete PFAS through urine and menstrual blood, but it is a slow process.