Think Dirty Ingredient Breakdown: Perfluoroalkyl Acids & Related Compounds (PFAS)

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PFAAs: Perfluoroalkyl Acids.

PFAS: Poly- and Perfluoroalkyl substances. The umbrella term for all PFAAs, PFOA, PFOS, and all other chemicals in this category.

PFOA: Perfluorooctanoic Acid.

PFOS: Perfluorooctane Sulfonate.

You might recognize the name PFAS or PFAAs from headlines over the past few years regarding the presence of these chemicals in consumer products like menstrual underwear, and more recently, cosmetics. Either the PFAAs (perfluoroalkyl acids) or PFAS (poly- and perfluoroalkyl substances) abbreviation is generally used to refer to the same family of chemicals, which comprises 4,000+ wholly man-made fluorinated chemicals.

PFAS were first developed and produced in the United States by manufacturing giant 3M in the 1940s. PFAS are incredibly useful substances with many commercial purposes, including grease-proofing, water-proofing, and non-stick properties. A non-exhaustive list of examples includes firefighting foams, household cleaners, and coatings for textiles, paper products, and cookware. PFOA specifically (perfluorooctanoic acid) is found in many Teflon products, the substance used to create a non-stick property.

It would not be until the start of the 2000s that the scientific community realized that PFOS (perfluorooctanyl sulfonate), then a key ingredient in a popular stain repellent, could be detected at low levels throughout the environment and in humans.

PFAS are persistent organic pollutants, aka “forever chemicals”, meaning they do not degrade naturally and accumulate over time with potentially adverse effects on both human health and the environment. As these chemicals are a fairly recent addition to the planet, assessing any long term effects of exposure, contamination, and environmental accumulation has been difficult. The past two decades or so has seen the first significant research into the potential hazards of PFAS. Many PFAS have since been phased out of production, though concentrations can remain throughout the water table and food chains for long periods. Studies have detected PFAAs in virtually every type of water and environmental media: a non-exhaustive list includes drinking water, soil, groundwater, indoor dust, and the atmosphere.

The environmental phenomenon known as biomagnification also presents a concern, in which chemicals progress through the food chain, increasing in concentration as they reach the top. As a consequence, humans may inadvertently consume PFAS like PFOA, perfluorodecanoic acid (PFDA), and perfluoroundecanoic acid (PFUnA).

On top of environmental concerns, PFAS are known toxins that affect vital systems in our bodies. Regulatory concerns have steadily increased over time as biomonitoring continues to reveal the presence of PFAS in humans. The California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment recently announced their intention to expand the Proposition 65 List of cancer-causing chemicals to include perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS). These two chemicals were already on the state’s list of chemicals known to cause reproductive harm.

Noted adverse health effects include reduced kidney function, metabolic syndrome (a cluster of conditions that increases the risk of diabetes, stroke, and heart disease), thyroid disruption, and reproductive harm. Studies have found that exposure during pregnancy can lead to problems for both mother and baby. A growing body of evidence suggests that exposure to PFAS in utero or childhood could lead to severe and chronic long term health effects. Associations exist between exposure to PFAs and altered immune function, dyslipidemia, kidney function, and age of menstruation.

Concentrations in human blood samples have declined as regulations have kicked older PFAs out of production, but exposures to replacement compounds are still not well characterized and replacement PFAs are in widespread use as chemical regulations in most countries are far less than stringent. Evidence has shown that replacement compounds like fluorotelomer alcohols can be converted or metabolized back to PFOA or PFOS in the atmosphere.

In the process of writing this article, a study was released that tested 231 cosmetic products in the United States and Canada for the presence of PFAS. Fluorine was found in 29 of the products, with the highest concentrations found in foundation, eye products, mascaras, and lip products. Only 8% of the ingredient lists disclosed the presence of any PFAS chemicals, reflecting the gaping regulatory holes that exist in cosmetic ingredient safety and labeling in North America. It is not entirely clear whether this presence reflects intentionally added PFAs, for their properties of durability and water resistance, or if they are impurities in the formulation. However, products marketed as having “wear-resistant” and “long-lasting” properties tended to have high fluorine levels. The requirements for reporting the use of PFAs in North America and Europe is less than stringent, so the story goes for most cosmetic ingredients, including known toxins.

Before the release of this study, there were limited investigations into the presence of PFAs in cosmetics, and it was not considered a significant source of exposure. This revelation is concerning, and further investigation is necessary to reduce potential harm and uninformed exposure. Following the release of this study, the United States Congress introduced a bill that would ban the (intentional) use of PFAS in cosmetics — a worthy first step of many required.

The biological methods by which toxicity and adverse health outcomes occur from exposure to PFAs through a variety of routes has still not been fully fleshed out, though the body of research is growing. In order to battle toxic chemicals, we must fully understand them. Living in a world of mass industry and production means our chemical exposures are many, and to protect the health of our future generations, steps should be taken to reduce the use of these chemicals until we know what we’re getting ourselves into.

How do I avoid PFAS?

  • For household products: steer clear of any products marketed as “non-stick”, “stain-resistant”, or “water-resistant”.
  • The packaging of fast food products and microwave popcorn often contains PFAS as the coating is designed to be grease-resistant.
  • In terms of cosmetics, shop from companies that are transparent about their ingredients and practices. As we discussed earlier, PFAS are not always mentioned in the ingredient lists, so it can be difficult to tell whether a product may contain any PFAS. Any product with a 3 rating or below on the Think Dirty app is a good place to start.

More Information:

  • The movie “Dark Waters” is an entertaining way to learn a little bit more about this issue. It’s a dramatization of a real-life case brought against chemical manufacturing giant DuPont after the company contaminated West Virginia land and water supply with hundreds of tons of PFOA.

Think Dirty Ingredient Breakdown: Perfluoroalkyl Acids & Related Compounds (PFAS) was originally published in Think Dirty on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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