Forever chemicals, or PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances), are a group of chemicals that don't break down easily. PFAS are useful in industries from aerospace to electronics. They've helped make better firefighting foam, nonstick cookware, medical devices, waterproof clothing, and stain-resistant flooring. Some of these inventions have saved lives.

Health researchers are, however, concerned about how many forever chemicals are building up in the environment and in the human body. While some online sources make doomsday predictions about rainwater causing cancer, the answer to how widespread and dangerous forever chemicals are is more complex.

Which Chemicals Are Forever Chemicals?

Over 9000 chemicals are considered part of the forever chemicals group. What this diverse group of substances shares is their synthetic nature: they have a chain of strong carbon-fluorine bonds, and these strong bonds prevent PFAS from naturally breaking down in the environment over time.

BPA, PFOA, PFOS, and Gen X are all forever chemicals. Not all forever chemicals are made the same, though: each has its own unique properties and effects.

plastic bottle floating in an oily waterway


Why Are Researchers Concerned?

Over the last 70 years, forever chemicals have been used in products all over the world. The problem is that these chemicals spread. Waste dumps and manufacturing sites have contaminated nearby soil, waterways, and even the air.

Forever chemicals have been found in fish and livestock that live in or drink contaminated water. Because PFAS don't break down naturally over time, these chemicals can build up to dangerous levels in people, animals, and environments.

wild fox drinking from a stream


What Are the Health Risks?

There are so many forever chemicals and they are so common that researching the effects of one particular chemical can be challenging.

Research has, however, shown a link between forever chemicals and a higher risk of liver disease, thyroid issues, diabetes, birth defects, pre-eclampsia, stroke, and some cancers. Some of these chemicals may also damage the immune system.

woman getting an ultrasound on her neck


How Widespread Are Forever Chemicals?

Forever chemicals have been found in soil, water, and air all over the planet. They've even been found in Antarctica. Many people have already been exposed to PFAS by drinking contaminated water, eating meat from animals that have been exposed, and using products made with forever chemicals.

One CDC report indicated that 97% of Americans have forever chemicals in their blood.

researcher taking soil for testing


How Much Exposure is Dangerous?

Low levels of forever chemicals aren't necessarily harmful. It's heavy exposure over a long period of time that poses the greatest health risk.

This long-term exposure is what allows forever chemicals to build up in the blood. Most people have low levels of PFAS in their blood, but because these chemicals can build up over time, it's still important to limit overall exposure.

gloved hand reaching for a blood sample in a lab


How Can People Limit Exposure?

It's virtually impossible to eliminate exposure to forever chemicals, but there are some ways to reduce it. Choosing items at the store that are free of phthalates and parabens, using a water filter at home, and vacuuming with a HEPA vacuum can all be helpful.

Not all people, however, can afford these solutions. The best way to limit exposure for all people is to stop so many forever chemicals from getting into the environment in the first place.

woman filling her water bottle at an outdoor fountain


Who Is At The Highest Risk?

Lower-income communities are at a higher risk of PFAS contamination. Workers are also vulnerable, particularly firefighters and those who work in chemical manufacturing. They are more likely to be exposed to forever chemicals in high concentrations and to be exposed to airborne PFAS.

Wearing proper protective gear is essential in these industries.

firefighter surrounded by smoke


Are Forever Chemicals Regulated?

In June 2022, the EPA released stricter guidelines limiting the amount of forever chemicals in drinking water. The goal of these and other regulations is to keep exposure as close to zero as possible.

These guidelines are not yet written into law. Many companies may simply ignore them and current testing is not reliable enough to verify that limits are being met.

magnifying glass highlighting the Environmental Protection Agency


Is There Any Good News?

The overall amount of some PFAS in human blood has already decreased since the early 2000s when regulations started. Researchers have also found ways to eliminate forever chemicals in drinking water.

By using relatively low heat and gentle solvents, they were able to successfully break down the chemicals without harmful byproducts. This process may soon be used to treat drinking water around the world.

little girl drinking a glass of water


What Can We Do?

The most important way to protect everyone from forever chemicals is to hold the corporations that create them accountable. Public criticism and boycotts can influence companies to use safer disposal methods. Vote for policies and leaders that support environmental health.

Most people have been exposed to these chemicals, but no single factor determines health all by itself. Other interventions like a healthy diet, exercise, and reducing further exposure can lead to a healthy future.

smiling older couple going for a walk


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This site offers information designed for educational purposes only. You should not rely on any information on this site as a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, treatment, or as a substitute for, professional counseling care, advice, diagnosis, or treatment. If you have any concerns or questions about your health, you should always consult with a physician or other healthcare professional.