Just in case you didn’t have enough toxic chemicals to think about avoiding in daily life, here are some more: poly and perfluoroalkyl substances, otherwise known as PFAS.
Scientists have been concerned for years about PFASs, which are found in everything from fire-fighting foam to food packaging (grease resistant-pizza boxes are a popular application). Certain types of these chemicals have been linked to cancer, congenital cerebral palsy, and other serious health effects. Thankfully, those chemicals have largely been removed from products, replaced with other PFAS compounds thought to be less harmful.
But, as the New York Times points out, those replacement chemicals might not be any better than the ones they’re replacing–a situation familiar to anyone who has watched as manufacturers replace BPA with BPS, another “safe” replacement that has turned out to be toxic.
Some 200 scientists have signed a statement discussing the potential for harm from PFASs–even the replacement chemicals that are supposed to be better. The scientists note that little information is publicly available on their chemistry and toxicological profiles, that they are used in larger quantities since they tend to be less effective, and that many of the replacement PFASs have similar structures to the old ones.
A new commentary published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives also questions their use. Here’s an excerpt, written by Linda Birnbaum, the head of the national toxicology program for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services:
The question is, should these chemicals continue to be used in consumer products in the meantime, given their persistence in the environment? And, in the absence of indisputably safe alternatives, are consumers willing to give up certain product functionalities, such as stain resistance, to protect themselves against potential health risks? These conundrums cannot be resolved by science alone but need to be considered in an open discussion informed by the scientific evidence.
The problem is that PFAS are durable, water resistant, and difficult to replace. For consumers, they’re also difficult to avoid. Since research on the health and environmental effects of the substitute PFASs could take years, this is a situation where chemical companies and manufacturers should start doing serious research into replacements now.