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Living healthy, the PFAS

September 03, 2023
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Living healthy, the PFAS

What PFAS are, how they enter the body, what risks they pose and what we can do to protect ourselves

Today we're talking about a family of substances that we often hear about and read about in articles and magazines, the PFAS. PFAS are perfluoroalkyl substances, which are widely used in industry due to their high resistance but which can pose a health risk. Let's try to better understand the PFAS, what they are, what the risks are for humans and what science says about, in particular we will refer to very recent articles that shed light on these chemical substances.

PFAS, what they are and risks

PFAS are chemical substances and represent a large family of 12,000 substances. The success of PFAS is due to their ability to be water repellent and fire resistant, thermally and chemically stable. This explains why PFAS are widely used in industry. However, more and more studies indicate that PFAS pose a risk, both to human and animal health and to the planet. In fact, in the latter case, these substances are very resistant and can contaminate the groundwater. As far as human health is concerned, even though the quantities of PFAS are very limited, since more and more restrictions are imposed, these substances tend to accumulate in the body and remain for years causing problems such as thyroid malfunction, increased cholesterol, liver damage, including fatty liver, cellular degeneration of the testicles and kidneys, low birth weight and a reduction in the immune response (Maddalon et al, Chemosphere, Sep 2023). Hence the importance of being aware of products that contain PFAS and, if possible, limiting them (Boisacq et al, Food Additives and Contaminants, May 2023).

PFAS, attention to some products dedicated to women

A very recent research, conducted by a team of American scientists and presented at the 2023 meeting of the American Chemical Society, analyzed various products used during menstruation, such as pads, tampons and cups, looking for PFAS (Peaslee et al, ACS, 13 Aug 2013). What has emerged is that, while many products do not contain PFAS, some have these substances both in the package that contains them and in the outer layers. Absorbents and tampons generally do not carry the list of ingredients with which they were produced and therefore it is difficult to understand the reason for the presence of PFAS, whether deliberately added to protect the product from humidity, or if due to contamination. Additionally, the search did not report the names of the brands involved. In any case, this research aims to bring greater awareness both in people, called to choose quality products, and in governments, which will have to deepen this topic and insert further bans on the use of PFAS.

PFAS, even in paper straws

More and more countries are banning single-use plastic products, such as plates but also straws. Hence the spread of alternatives considered more ecological and less harmful to health. For example, more and more straws made of paper, but also bamboo and even glass are becoming very popular. However, even these alternatives were not found to be PFAS-free. In fact, very recent research has shown that paper straws are the ones most likely to contain PFAS, since 90% of tested samples showed the presence of these substances (Boisacq et al, Food Additives and Contaminants, May 2023).

Then follow the bamboo straws, for which 80% of the tested samples tested positive for PFAS, then the plastic straws and also the glass straws. A worrying fact that emerged from the analysis conducted is the presence of some types of PFAS, such as trifluoroacetic acid (TFA) and trifluoromethanesulphonic acid (TFMS), which are soluble in water and therefore with a high probability of passing from straw to drink and so on in the body (Boisacq et al, Food Additives and Contaminants, May 2023). Stainless steel straws, on the other hand, did not show the presence of PFAS.

Therefore, as the authors of the study conclude, to be sure not to introduce PFAS into the body and pollute the environment, a good choice may be to give up straws or resort to stainless steel ones (Boisacq et al, Food Additives and Contaminants, May 2023).

PFAS, other sources

Human exposure to these substances is mainly due to contaminated food and water. For example, many food packaging and reusable plastic bags contain PFAS which can then migrate to food (Boisacq et al, Food Additives and Contaminants, May 2023). Contamination is greater in the case of fatty foods stored at high temperatures for long periods of time (Boisacq et al, Food Additives and Contaminants, May 2023). PFAS have also been detected in con popcorn packages to be heated in the microwave, in fast food containers, in compostable disposable plates and cups and in non-stick utensils (Ramirez Carnero et al, Foods, 2021). This doesn't mean that we need to get rid of all the non-stick pans we have in the kitchen, absolutely not, also because the amount of PFAS is really very small. But it is important to be aware of it, always buy quality products, throw away the pans and other damaged utensils and, perhaps for the future, prefer ceramic, steel or cast iron pans. Even tap water can be a source of PFAS, in this case it may be useful to ask your municipality for more information, which regularly carries out checks on drinking water. Finally, pay attention to the fabrics indicated as stain resistant, to be so it is very likely that they use PFAS.

PFAS, some advice for every day

Experts recommend cleaning, dusting and airing closed environments often as PFAS tend to accumulate in the dust.

Then, as regards tap water, if we drink it and we are not sure if it is PFAS-free then a good choice may be to filter it. Wash fruit and vegetables well, preferably with filtered water. Instead, the risk of accumulating PFAS through showering, bathing, or washing dishes or clothes is very small. As indicated by the EPA, the US agency for environmental protection, in fact, the probability that PFAS enter the body through the skin is very low (EPA, PFOA PFOS and other PFAS).

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