Forever Chemicals Are Everywhere, But You Can Lower Your Risk

4 min read

Feb. 29, 2024 – Maybe they should be called “everywhere chemicals,” instead of forever chemicals. 

Either way, these long-lasting, commonplace substances are used in everything from water bottles to makeup, stain and water-resistant coatings, nonstick cookware, and more. 

They leak into your drinking water, many of the foods you eat, and turn into toxic dust in your home. These chemicals have been around for over 80 years and serve their purposes well, such as providing stain resistance for your new carpeting or sofa. But they’re virtually indestructible and can contaminate everything they meet. 

More than likely, they’re in your blood and can harm your health – some cancersimmune system suppression, and other diseases may be linked to the substances. This month, medical journal The Lancet released the results of a study linking prenatal phthalate exposure to adverse birth outcomes in the United States. 

So, what’s a consumer to do? Is it possible to avoid phthalates, like PFAS (perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances), aka forever chemicals? 

“It can feel overwhelming sometimes,” says Erica Cirino, communications manager for the Plastic Pollution Coalition and author of Thicker Than Water. “On an individual level, you can’t eliminate all of your exposure, but you can minimize it.”

There are signs that times are changing. Just this week, the FDA announced that U.S. companies will no longer use grease-proofing materials that contain PFAS. That change means that fast-food wrappers, microwave popcorn bags, and pet food bags will no longer contain the harmful chemicals. The FDA called the move a win for public health and promises to continue researching risk levels. 

“PFAS and food go together like oil and water – they don’t. Our lunch shouldn’t be wrapped in toxic chemicals,” Danielle Melgar, an advocate for consumer safety group U.S. PIRG Education Fund, said in a statement. “When virtually all Americans have PFAS in our bodies and expectant mothers can even pass PFAS to their babies, there’s no time to waste in eliminating ‘forever chemicals’ wherever possible. We applaud the FDA’s announcement and this critical progress in wiping this absurd threat from our plates.”

You Are What You Eat

One of the first places to take stock of your forever chemical exposure is the food you eat and water you drink. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, water, air, fish, and soil all show varying levels of contamination from forever chemicals. “It’s hubris to think we can dump chemicals into the environment and that they won’t contaminate our food sources,” said Gail Carlson, PhD, director of the Buck Lab for Climate and Environment at Colby College in Maine. 

What is unknown, in many cases, is whether those contamination levels are high enough to harm human health. But you can find our if your tap water is considered safe, said Tasha Stoiber, PhD, a senior scientist at the Environmental Working Group. “You can check out our tap water database to see if there are issues in your area,” she said. “If so, we recommend a water filter, either a reverse osmosis filter or carbon filtration system.”

Food is another area to try to limit your forever chemical exposure, and with a few simple steps, you can make a difference. “Look for unpackaged foods, with minimal processing,” Cirino said. If it’s available and if you can afford it, try buying organic produce. 

The products you use for cooking and storing food also count. Aim for glass over plastic, cast iron or uncoated ceramic versus nonstick cookware, and as much as possible, cook at home instead of relying on takeout. Testing has uncovered high levels of PFAS in food wrappers for burgers, drinks, and more, which is one reason the FDA worked toward the changes it announced this week. When you do get takeout, transfer those foods to your own plates as quickly as possible so that you reduce the time your meals are exposed to the harmful chemicals.

Finally, consider how much seafood you eat. While it’s a nutrition powerhouse and has less environmental impact than beef, shellfish and other types of fish consume high levels of microplastics. Much remains unknown about how much of that gets into the human body when seafood is eaten. 

“It’s like the advice we give pregnant women when it comes to seafood and mercury,” Carlson said. “We walk the line by saying seafood has many health advantages, but it also contains chemicals and mercury.” 

When it comes to food and water, there’s no avoiding forever chemicals entirely, and you still need to nourish your body. Aim to strike a balance between reduction and healthy nutrition, the experts said.

In Your Home 

Beyond food and water sources, you can also reduce forever chemicals in your home by making wise purchases. 

“If you’re buying new furniture or adding new flooring, opt for wood floors” and avoid products with stain-resistant coatings,” Stoiber said. “PFAS don’t stay in textiles, and over time those coatings break down and shed into house dust, which is how you’re exposed to them.” Be sure to dust and vacuum frequently, she said, to reduce that dust.

Clothing is another source of forever chemical exposure, particularly in outdoor gear. Think Gore-Tex coatings, for instance – wonderful for keeping rain and snow out but, until recently, loaded with PFAS. The brand has announced its intent to stop using the chemicals, but it’s important to do some homework on any of the brands you wear. Opt for natural fabrics like wool and cotton, where possible, and learn if your pieces have any special coatings on them.

Products like cosmetics, personal care items, and even dental floss also contain their share of forever chemicals. With increasing public demand for their removal, some brands are offering alternatives, so shop with that in mind.