PFAS: What to Know

Medically Reviewed by Jabeen Begum, MD on January 24, 2024
7 min read

PFAS stands for perfluoroalkyl or polyfluoroalkyl substances. (You may know them by an older term “PFCs,” or perfluorochemicals).

It’s a group of chemicals that have properties that allow them to repel water and oil. 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.

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.

Also known as perfluorooctanoic acid, PFOA is a human-made chemical, and 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 carpet, 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:

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

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 get low levels of them through:

  • Soil and water that helps grow food
  • Certain food packaging
  • Some processing equipment
  • Eating certain foods, including fish

Are PFAS chemicals in your water?

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

This can include:

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

In some communities, PFAS may have seeped into the water supply through groundwater runoff. You can learn about your local water supply by asking your local government for your area's drinking water quality report.

Does your makeup contain PFAS?

You might also take in PFAS through your makeup. PFAS are used in cosmetic products to condition and smooth out the skin and appear shiny. It 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 may be listed on the ingredient list as PTFE (polytetrafluoroethylene), perfluorooctyl triethoxysilane, perfluorononyl dimethicone, perfluorodecalin, and perfluorohexane.

Are PFAS chemicals in your food?

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

This 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 property.

It can be found in:

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

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

Which other everyday products may have PFAS?

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

  • Carpet
  • 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.

The FDA regularly tests foods and products that people most commonly eat or use for PFAS levels. If the levels are detectable, the FDA does safety checks to see if it can harm human health or needs 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 Environmental Protection agency (EPA) is taking 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 -- at least 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.

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 any results they give you to either:

  • Your state’s standards for safe levels of PFAS
  • The Environmental Protection Agency’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.
  • Try to find pre-mixed infant formula if you have a baby and you don’t breastfeed them. Or mix infant formula with another water source that doesn’t have PFAS.
  • Talk to your doctor if you have a baby and you breastfeed them. 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.

Think about making smart swaps like these:

  • If you have nonstick pots and pans that are chipped or cracked, consider replacing them with stainless steel and iron cookware.
  • Eat less fast food and takeout. Many of the containers that the food comes in have PFAS coating.
  • Like to snack on microwave popcorn? Ditch the bagged versions. Buy corn kernels and heat them in a glass microwaveable popcorn popper instead.
  • Giving your home a makeover? Don’t get stain- or water-repellent treatments for new carpet and furniture.
  • Don’t wear stain- or water-repellent outerwear.
  • Check labels and avoid products with “PTFE” or “fluoro” on the ingredients list.