Environmental health: PFAS

There are many differences between our modern world and that of our ancestors. I often find myself wondering – what would our ancestors do? From nutrition and activity, to sleep hygiene and news intake, we do things very differently now. There are pro’s and con’s to this. I am not saying we need to take a step back in innovation, a time before cars and electricity. However it is clear that innovation is not always health-conscious.

PFAS (per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances) are a group of man-made compounds that persist forever. They do not degrade our lifetime for generations to come. These chemicals are known for their non-stick, waterproof, stain resistance, and flame-resistant properties. I previously wrote an article about the importance of good cookware in the kitchen. And in this article I briefly mention the concerns with Teflon®. This is the brand name of a synthetic fluoropolymer of tetrafluoroethylene, made by the 3M company and sold to be used by the DuPont company.

PFAS are now found in our environment- soil and drinking water, in amounts higher than deemed safe by the FDA. They are found in most human’s blood samples. High levels of serum PFAS have been correlated and not limited to: high cholesterol, ulcerative colitis, pregnancy induced hypertension, thyroid disease, testicular cancer, kidney cancer, and reduced response to vaccines.

Here is some history for those interested in evil capitalism: In the 1950’s 3M found ingestion caused birth defects in rats and birds, but decided against releasing this information to the public. 3M told Dupont to never dump the chemical in water ways, but then Dupont was dumping so much they lost tract and stopped counting. Next, Dupont had a safer option chemical but decided against it due to loss of profit margin.

In 2016 the EPA finally set a safety advisory limit to PFAS in drinking water at 70 parts per trillion (70ppt), which many scientists argue this amount is still too high. Unfortunately the EPA cannot enforce this as due to the toxic substance act in 1976 that gives companies the power of self-regulation. As communities near Dupont factories started showing increased rates of cancer, as well as workers in the factories, 3M and Dupont wanted to test employees’ blood and compare it to a healthy baseline. When they started testing the blood of adults across the US, then children, then across the world, it was in everyone’s blood (99.7% in the US). There are class action lawsuits against Dupont, which they settled by phasing out the use of a certain PFAS known as C8, but all they did was change the compound a little bit to a new one, called GENX, and it’s just as concerning as is it in the same class of PFAS. Similar to the issue with bisphenol A (BPA) and then plastic without BPA – it has other bisphenol compounds just as dangerous but not associated with disease, yet.

Okay, back to actionable health decisions. I don’t expect people to throw away their teflon cookware and buy expensive pyrex glass or all-clad stainless steel cookware. It is possible to use teflon safely by avoiding overheating it, and avoiding scraping it. No use of metal spatula or scouring scrubs, once it is scraped, nanoparticles will start to simmer into your food. Also, make sure you wash new clothes since these are sprayed with flame-resistant compounds at the factories. You can check to see if your drinking water is impacted by PFAS with this map. You can filter your water with ceramic based filters like the Berkey or ProPur USA filters, or use a reverse osmosis filtration system.

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