Health Effects of Exposure to Dangerous “Forever Chemicals”

Exposure to chemicals used to create fire-fighting foams and fast food packaging can have adverse effects on our health. Here’s what these pollutants are and why health experts are concerned about them.

Millions of people across the globe are exposed to per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), commonly referred to as “forever chemicals.” These are widespread pollutants that persist for long periods in the environment, accumulate in the bodies of people and wildlife, and adversely affect their health. Because they can contaminate water, most PFAS generated in one place can affect people and wildlife far from where they are used.

To address this global concern, a U.N. expert committee recommended a complete global elimination of the toxic fluorinated chemicals.(1)

These chemicals threaten especially the occupational health of firefighters. (2) PFAS contamination is usually associated with:

  • The use of firefighting foams (AFFF)
  • Nonstick cookware
  • Waterproofing of textiles
  • Food packaging
  • Other industrial and consumer applications

The ongoing use of AFFF – that contain PFAS chemicals – at airports and military bases has especially come under significant scrutiny recently.

AFFF is a type of fire suppression system used in training by the military for decades that is highly efficient in extinguishing petroleum-based fires. Yet, corporations that designed, manufactured and distributed AFFF allegedly knew that it contained toxic PFAS that would pose health risks.

As the administrative director of Environmental Litigation Group P.C., a U.S. law firm that helps people diagnosed with cancer caused by toxic exposures, I know that people have lots of questions and concerns. It’s important to help people get the information they need to help protect themselves, including important facts, such as “why are PFAS dangerous?”

What Are PFAS?

There are more than 4,000 chemicals in the PFAS family, and what they have in common is that:

  • They are man-made
  • They make surfaces resist stains, water and grease
  • They don’t break down

PFAS chemicals have been in production since the 1940s and found to have useful qualities for industrial and consumer products. Currently, some PFAS (PFOA and PFOS) are no longer in production in the U.S. and other parts of the world. But manufacturers have replaced them with other chemicals from the PFAS group. The key point is there are still forever chemicals in the products we use.

How Can You Be Exposed to PFAS?

Because PFAS chemicals have been used for many decades in many products, most people have PFAS levels in their bodies. Actually, studies estimate that PFAS are detectable in the blood of 98% of Americans.(3)

Firefighters that use AFFF are significantly exposed to forever chemicals through several occupational mechanisms including:

  • Direct exposure during use, inhaling or ingesting PFAS-contaminated air or dust
  • Exposure from personal protective equipment
  • Managing AFFF wastes
  • Occupation of fire stations that are contaminated
  • Consumption of contaminated water and produce
  • In rare cases, PFAS can be absorbed through the skin

Can PFAS Cause Health Problems?

The likelihood of having a disease or condition from PFAS depends on the frequency, duration, and concentration of exposure.

However, PFAS stay in the body for a very long period and their effects are cumulative. That is why the symptoms of exposure to PFAS are not acute and appear over some time.

According to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ASTDR), some studies in humans suggest that exposure to certain PFAS has several negative health outcomes, including but not limited to:

  • Pregnancy-induced hypertension/preeclampsia
  • Altered growth, learning and behavior of infants and older children(4)
  • Making vaccines less effective in young children
  • Fertility issues
  • Interference with the body’s natural hormones
  • Increased cholesterol levels
  • Changes in the immune system
  • Increased risk of certain cancers (e.g., testicular and kidney cancer)
  • Increased risk of ulcerative colitis
  • Increased risk of thyroid disease
  • Increased risk of asthma
  • Liver damage

A growing body of evidence has linked exposure to various adverse health effects and lead to the conclusion that PFAS chemicals affect every major organ in the human body.(5)

The good news is that since PFOS were phased out of production, scientists saw a dramatic reduction of chemical levels in people’s blood.

How Can You Limit Your Exposure to PFAS Chemicals?

Find out if your water is contaminated above safe levels. PFAS researchers suggest that to decrease the chemicals in your water, you should install a home water filter that uses reverse osmosis or an activated carbon system.

Avoid eating microwave popcorn and contaminated fish and shellfish. Avoid non-stick cookware and take-out food packaging when possible.

Avoid personal care products containing flour or PTFE. Use uncoated dental floss. Skip the outerwear made with pre-2000 Scotchguard and Gore-Tex. Avoid the stain-resistant upholstery and carpets. Use a good resource for items that are PFAS-free such as the Green Science Policy Institute’s list of PFAS-free products (6). There is also a free mobile app and a buying guide – Detox Me – offered by The Silent Spring Institute.

Firefighters Are Taking Action

PFAS levels in the blood of the general population and, particularly, of firefighters are clear evidence that exposure is significant and ongoing.

Representatives of firefighters are speaking up about the toxic PFAS chemical crisis. For example, a member of the International Association of Firefighters made a statement before the U.S. Senate, citing research done by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) that helped link exposure to AFFF to testicular and kidney cancer(7).

Additionally, the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs (VA) is warning veterans about the increased risks of developing cancer after being exposed to AFFF in military bases (8).

It’s important to know that in the U.S., the Senate and PFAS Task Force introduced legislation that helps veterans and their families harmed by PFAS chemicals at military bases get the health care services and benefits they need.(9) Under this bill, veterans injured by in-service exposure to AFFF are eligible for disability payments and medical treatment through the VA.

About the Author

Treven Pyles is the administrative director of Environmental Litigation Group, PC., a law firm that provides legal representation to individuals and their families harmed by toxic chemical exposure at military bases or on the job.