What are PFAS? The “Forever Chemicals”

Hundreds of everyday products contain very dangerous fluorinated compounds known as PFAS. They accumulate in our bodies and never break down in the environment. Very low levels of PFAS have been related to cancer, reproductive and immune system damage, and other illnesses.

For decades, chemical firms concealed proof of PFAS’s health risks. Today, nearly all Americans, even newborns, have PFAS in their blood, and over 200 million individuals may be consuming PFAS-contaminated water. What started as a “miracle of modern chemistry” has become a national problem.

What are PFAS?

DuPont first created Teflon-coated nonstick cookware in 1946. Today, the family of fluorinated chemicals derived from Teflon contains thousands of nonstick, stain-repellent, and waterproof compounds known as PFAS, which stands for per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances.

PFAS are employed in a wide range of consumer products and commercial uses. Decades of extensive use have contaminated water, land, and the blood of people and animals in remote parts of the planet. PFAS are extremely persistent, never breaking down in the environment and staying in our bodies for years. That’s why it is also known as “Forever Chemicals”

DuPont invented the PFAS chemical known as Teflon, but 3M became the primary manufacturer. In 2001, a crisis arose in Parkersburg, West Virginia, when the Teflon chemical was discovered in the drinking water of tens of thousands of people living near a DuPont plant. (The story is documented in the film “The Devil We Know.”)

A class-action lawsuit revealed evidence that DuPont knew PFAS was toxic and had contaminated tap water but failed to notify its employees, local communities, or environmental agencies. The case also prompted studies that linked the Teflon ingredient to cancer and other ailments.

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What are The Health Hazards Associated with PFAS?

The two notorious PFAS compounds, PFOA, the Teflon chemical, and PFOS, an ingredient in 3M’s Scotchgard, were phased out in the United States due to the Environmental Protection Agency’s insistence following discovery of their hidden hazards. (They are still legal in things imported into this country.) PFAS compounds have been linked to cancer in various organs, including the prostate, kidney, liver, and pancreas.

  • Reproductive problems
  • Weakened childhood immunity
  • Low birth weight.
  • Endocrine disruption
  • Increased cholesterol
  • Weight Gain in Children and Dieting Adults

PFOA, PFOS, and other phased-out substances are known as “long chain” chemicals because they have eight carbon atoms. Since these compounds were phased out, the EPA and the Food and Drug Administration have irresponsibly permitted the introduction of scores of “short chain” alternatives containing six carbon atoms.

Chemical makers say that their structure makes them safer. However, DuPont concedes that the short-chain chemical GenX produces malignant tumors in laboratory animals. A 2019 Auburn University study discovered that short-chains may pose even greater dangers than long-chains, supporting experts’ growing consensus that the entire family of PFAS is toxic.

How do Humans Become Exposed to PFAS Chemicals?

EWG and the Social Science Health and Environmental Health Research Institute monitor PFAS pollution reported by federal and state authorities. As of July 2019, the tracking map indicates that PFAS contaminates public drinking water systems serving 19 million people across 49 states. Michigan has the most PFAS sites, however this is mostly due to the fact that most other states have not conducted thorough testing for the chemicals. Unreleased federal data indicate that up to 110 million Americans may have PFAS-contaminated drinking water.

However, drinking water is not the primary source of PFAS exposure for most Americans:

  • Although the original PFAS chemical used to make Teflon has been removed from the market, Teflon and other brands of nonstick cookware are still manufactured using new PFAS that may be no safer.
  • PFAS chemicals are commonly used to coat paper and cardboard wrappers for fast restaurant and bakery products.
  • PFAS compounds are found in stain-resistant furniture and carpets coated with Scotchgard, Stainmaster, and other fabric treatments.
  • Clothing labeled stain- or water-repellent, such as Gore-Tex coats, typically contains PFAS chemicals.
  • PFAS can also be found in personal care and cosmetic items.

Also read : New Method to Detect PFAS, The ‘Forever Chemicals’ in Under 3 Minutes

Who is Accountable for PFAS Pollution?


3M tests from 1950 demonstrated that PFAS might poison people’s blood. By the 1960s, 3M and DuPont animal experiments had demonstrated that PFAS were hazardous to human health. In the 1980s, both firms linked PFAS to cancer and discovered higher cancer rates among their employees. However, they kept these and other investigations secret. 

Six other PFOA manufacturers were subject to the PFOA phase-out. They included Arkema, Asahi, BASF, Clariant, Daikin, and Solvay Solexis. In 2015, DuPont split off its PFAS division onto Chemours. Chemours’ PFAS factories have also contaminated drinking water, and the two firms are involved in a court struggle over who will pay to clean it up.

Industrial discharges

At least 475 industrial units may be releasing PFAS into the environment. However, there are currently no regulations on industrial PFAS releases under the federal Clean Water Act or the Clean Air Act. Here’s a map of these facilities.

The military

Despite recognizing the risks of PFAS-based firefighting foam, the Defense Department used it for decades and is now opposing efforts to clear up legacy pollution. This map depicts military facilities where drinking water or groundwater is contaminated with PFAS at levels higher than the EPA’s warning limit.