PFAS 101: A Guide to “Forever Chemicals”

4ocean Team

Discover everything you need to know about “forever chemicals” and how to avoid them

PFAS are a group of synthetic chemicals that have quietly slipped into many aspects of our daily lives. Known as "forever chemicals," these compounds have become a major source of global concern and research due to their widespread presence, resistance to degradation, and potential health and environmental impacts.

Together, we’ll explore what PFAS are, where they’re found, the environmental and health implications associated with these chemical pollutants, and some of the steps you can take to minimize your exposure. 

What are PFAS?

PFAS stands for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, which is a class of synthetic, man-made chemicals characterized by their unique carbon-fluorine (C–F) bond.

One of the strongest and most stable chemical bonds known to man, these chemicals are resistant to heat and water, which means they persist in the environment and won’t break down the way a leaf eventually becomes soil. 

Common sources of PFAS

PFAS are released into the air, soil, and water during manufacturing processes as well as during waste storage and treatment. Sites that are known or suspected of using PFAS include:

  • Gas stations and terminals
  • Chemical manufacturers
  • Commercial printers
  • Plastics and resin manufacturers
  • Pain and coating manufacturers
  • Semiconductor manufacturers
  • Metal product manufacturers
  • Semiconductor manufacturers
  • Electroplating and polishing processes
  • Textile mills
  • Landfills and waste disposal facilities
  • Sewage and waste treatment plants
  • Military bases and facilities
  • Airports

But those aren’t the only places where PFAS are found. Since the 1950s, these synthetic substances have been added to lots of common household products that we use every day including:

  • Non-stick cookware like teflon-coated pans and non-stick baking sheets; even products without PFOA can contain alternatives that are still harmful
  • Food packaging like microwave popcorn bags, fast food wrappers, pizza boxes, and other grease-resistant paper products; even compostable bowls labeled  “environmentally-friendly” sometimes contain PFAS

  • Water- and stain-resistant fabrics including apparel like athletic and yoga clothing and period underwear; kitchen linens, bedding, carpeting, and furniture upholstery; outdoor gear like waterproof tents, jackets, and backpacks
  • Personal care products and cosmetics like dental floss as well as waterproof mascara, lipsticker, eyeliner, foundation, concealer, lip balm, blush, and nail polish
  • Electronics that require insulation material
  • Firefighting foam from fire extinguishers as well as firefighting gear and equipment

Researchers continue to test consumer products for PFAS and often find it in products where PFAS were not intentionally added; many food, cosmetics, and clothing items fall under this category.

So whether we’re putting on makeup, enjoying a takeout meal, playing with our kids in the living room, or enjoying the great outdoors, we’re constantly coming into contact with PFAS. 

The problem with forever chemicals

Manufacturing these products isn’t the only way PFAS are released into the environment. When we dispose of common household products that contain PFAS, they enter landfills. Now, most landfills do not remove PFAS so when rain falls, it creates a toxic liquid waste that is absorbed into the soil and nearby water sources like rivers and lakes, which are all connected to the ocean.

PFAS from clothing, fabrics, and cleaners also get washed down the drain and flow to wastewater treatment plants, most of which are not advanced enough to remove PFAS. Instead, these chemicals remain in treated water and biosolids (recycled sewage) that are sometimes used in agriculture, which can contaminate the very soil and water used to raise the fruits, vegetables, and meat we eat every day. The same is true for microplastic particles, which may also contain PFAS.

Environmental impact

One of the biggest concerns with PFAS is their environmental impact. Because they resist water and heat, PFAS don’t break down when they enter the environment. Instead, they accumulate in ever-greater concentrations.

The presence of PFAs in the environment can harm wildlife and disrupt the healthy functioning of contaminated ecosystems, potentially leading to changes in species composition and ecological interactions.

PFAS can also bioaccumulate in plants and animals. This means that these toxic chemicals are being stored inside the bodies of living things.

And, as they work their way up the food chain, the concentration of these toxins increases—a phenomenon known as biomagnification.

So animals at the top of the food chain tend to have higher amounts of toxins stored in their bodies than animals or plants at the lower end of the food chain.

Human health concerns

PFAS are not just problematic for wildlife and the environment; they also pose health risks for humans.

Scientific studies have already linked PFAS exposure with various cancers, immune suppression, developmental issues in children, reproductive dysfunction, and changes in liver and thyroid function. The human health risks associated with PFAS exposure are still not well understood, which is why they’re the subject of ongoing research and concern.

PFAS contamination in our water supply is already widespread. In fact, testing has revealed PFAS in drinking water systems across all 50 U.S. states and two U.S. territories—Guam and Puerto Rico. Bottled water is also a cause for concern with 39 out of 100 bottled waters testing positive for PFAS. The FDA has not yet set PFAS limits for bottled water and, according to experts, the full extent of the problem remains unknown.

The interaction between PFAS and plastic pollution

Plastics, especially microplastics, have the ability to absorb chemical pollutants from the surrounding environment and can store these toxins in concentrations up to one million times greater than seawater.

Just like PFAS, microplastics have already worked their way into the food chain, contributing to the bioaccumulation and biomagnification of toxins in living animals. This raises new questions about the extended consequences of plastic pollution and the role it plays in PFAS dispersion. 

Regulation and action on PFAS

Despite growing concerns about the health and environmental impacts of PFAS, there are no federal standards limiting PFAS discharges. In 2021, the EPA introduced a “PFAS roadmap” with a timeline for setting standards for basic things like drinking water and wastewater treatment as well as health assessment protocols and hazardous substance designations for several PFAS chemicals.

Congress is also considering comprehensive PFAS legislation. The PFAS Action Act of 2021 was passed by the U.S. House of Representatives and has advanced to the Senate. A separate House bill, the Clean Water Standards for PFAS Act, would require water discharge limits on PFAS from chemical manufacturers, pain, paper, plastics, electrical components, textiles, leather tanning, metal finishing, and electroplating companies.

At least 32 U.S. states are considering more than 210 bills that would ban or restrict PFAS, including in personal care products, clothing, and food packaging. Your voice is needed to support these bills, so find your local representatives and reach out to let them know how much these issues mean to you.

The challenge of addressing PFAS is relatively new, but urgent action is required. While some countries and states have started taking measures to regulate and monitor these chemicals, it's clear that more needs to be done to help guide new regulations, which is currently a significant challenge. 

How to minimize your exposure to PFAS

It will be almost impossible to avoid PFAS completely and the cost of cleaning up these chemicals is enormous. However, there are still steps you can take to reduce your risk and advocate for change.

  • Find out if your water source has been tested for PFAS; if it contains PFAS or hasn’t been tested, consider investing in a water filter to help remove PFAS from your drinking water. Reverse osmosis filters and two-stage filters perform best when it comes to removing PFAS.
  • If you still buy bottled water, try to purchase water labeled “purified” instead of just “spring water.”
  • Limit the use of clothing and products labeled “waterproof,” “water-resistant,” and “stain-resistant;” also avoid “anti-fog” eyeglass sprays and wipes
  • Avoid foods packaged in grease-proof bags and containers (e.g., drive-thru burgers and fries, microwave popcorn); use your own containers for takeout and leftovers
  • Don’t trust compostable packaging just because it’s compostable; always check the label and choose options that are BPI-certified
  • Cook at home using stainless steel, cast iron, glass, or ceramic cookware instead of non-stick options
  • Avoid cosmetics and personal care products with labels or ingredients containing “perfluor-,” “polyflor-,” “PTFE,” or Teflon
  • Write or call your favorite restaurants and encourage them to ditch packaging containing PFAS
  • Reach out to your local representatives to support existing legislation and demand urgent and immediate action on PFAS

It's vital that we continue to raise awareness about PFAS, advocate for regulatory measures, and invest in research to fully understand the consequences of these chemical compounds.

By addressing this issue comprehensively, we can minimize the impact of these chemicals on both the environment and human health and work towards a cleaner, safer future. 

Best Sellers

Our captains and crews will pull 5 pounds of trash from the world’s oceans, rivers, and coastlines for every product sold.