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The Catch-22 of limiting our PFAS exposure

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The Catch-22 of limiting our PFAS exposure

Feb 19, 2024 | 1:22 pm ET
By Marina Schauffler
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The Catch-22 of limiting our PFAS exposure
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Many retailers have no clue which of their products contain PFAS. (Getty Images)

If you’re fortunate, your primary care provider might follow the guidance of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine (NASEM) and inquire about your exposure to per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). Assuming you don’t have high occupational exposure or drink from a well at risk, your clinician might conclude the exchange with encouragement to limit PFAS exposure where you can.

Individual risk reduction is essential but inherently problematic. It keeps the focus on adapting to the status quo when there’s an acute need to reduce PFAS at the source—limiting the production and use of these pernicious chemicals.

Do-it-yourself fixes unfairly burden those who did not create this problem. Why should the onus be on them to research and purchase water filtration or replace consumer goods that hold hidden hazards?

Personal risk reduction also favors those who have time to educate themselves and the resources to take protective measures. Many of the people most vulnerable to the ill effects of PFAS don’t have those advantages.

An appendix of the National Academy committee report captures the irony at the core of individual interventions: “Reducing intake of PFAS should reduce exposure, but people may not necessarily know whether their foods, beverages, or products contain PFAS.”

That’s the Catch-22 we all face: How can we limit PFAS exposure when we don’t know where these chemicals are found? PFAS can lurk in the water and food we chow down and in the products we slather on, pop on our eyeballs and pull through our teeth.

We know that PFAS enter our bodies through some combination of ingestion, inhalation and dermal absorption, with the former often deemed the dominant route of exposure. But with all three pathways, there’s insufficient data to guide efforts at lowering risk.

Progress is happening in testing public water systems, but no state has committed to underwrite the testing of private wells (which supply up to half of households in some rural states). So, the breadth of exposure to contaminated water—likely one of the greatest health risks—is still unknown.

Research on where PFAS concentrate in foods is still embryonic, making it hard to know what to avoid.

For consumer goods, where a single study identified 200 product categories likely to use PFAS, there are no product databases and the one online listing of PFAS-free goods includes just 10 categories.

In cases where product testing has occurred, such as the work Consumer Reports and other researchers have done to assess PFAS leaching from takeout food packaging , there’s still a huge onus on consumers to track that research and keep up with the latest developments on which claims about PFAS-free packaging hold up (spoiler alert: not all of them do).

That’s why a dozen states have now moved to restrict PFAS in food packaging, while a smaller number are phasing out PFAS use in other product categories such as apparel, carpeting, cookware and ski wax.

Only two states have committed to phasing out PFAS across all product sectors except when uses are deemed essential. A critical first step in that process requires that retail businesses report on which of their products contain PFAS. Maine has begun that challenging process, and Minnesota is following suit, with “Amara’s Law,” which requires reporting on PFAS in products by 2026.

Maine’s work to trace the whereabouts of PFAS demonstrates that consumers aren’t the only ones in the dark. Many retailers have no clue which of their products contain PFAS. Even manufacturers of those products often plead ignorance, pointing up the supply chain to chemical corporations that may assert such information is “proprietary.”

Tracking stealth chemicals that we cannot see, smell or taste requires transparency in production processes. Without comprehensive reporting of PFAS, we can’t begin to get a grip on this insidious contamination.

The medical counsel to “reduce your PFAS exposure” is sound advice. To follow that prescription, we need for businesses at every level to reveal how and where we’re being exposed.

This piece first appeared in Marina Schauffler’s Substack newsletter ContamiNation on Feb. 16, 2024.