What Are PFAS?

a stream of water infected with pfas drops from a black faucet
Regulatory bodies do their best to identify harmful substances and make sure they are not used in products available on the market. And yet, there are potentially harmful chemicals that still go unregulated in our water, food, and other products we use. PFAS are among those substances. As serious health concerns over the use of these chemicals have arisen, public and scientific understanding has increased, and more information about the reach and effects of PFAS has come to light.

What Are PFAS?

PFAS—perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances—are a group of over 4,700 synthetic chemicals. They have been used in commercial production since the 1940s to make surfaces resistant to stains, water, and grease. The most widely studied of these chemicals are PFOA (also known as C8)—a slippery, soap-like chemical used to make Teflon pans, carpet protectant, and hundreds of other products—and PFOS, which has been used in substances such as cleaning products and firefighting foams. PFAS are not naturally occurring and don’t break down organically. This means that when they make their way into water systems and soil, they don’t easily break down and instead collect over time. These chemicals are highly persistent and also accumulate over time in humans and animals. PFAS are so easily dispersed through air and water that they have even been found in the Arctic and its wildlife, including polar bears, and in open ocean waters. 

Where Are PFAS Found?

PFAS can be found in a wide range of products. Some products that commonly utilize these chemicals include non-stick cookware, fire retardants, stain and water repellents, some furniture, waterproof clothes, pizza boxes and take-out containers, food packaging, carpets and textiles, rubbers and plastics, electronics, and some dental floss. PFAS have also been found in fish, shellfish, and vegetables that have been grown in contaminated soil or water. But currently, the most harmful and insidious cases of PFAS pollution occur when water sources are contaminated. This can happen as chemicals leach into the ground around military bases and airports, where PFAS are used in flame-fighting foam, and around factories where PFAS are manufactured. And because of their persistent nature, once PFAS have infiltrated the water, they’re unlikely to leave. The Environmental Working Group (EWG) health advocates have estimated that up to 110 million Americans could have drinking water contaminated by PFAS. Confirming the widespread permeation and persistence of PFAS, evidence of these chemicals has been found in blood samples from people around the world. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found PFOA in the blood of 98% of Americans, as well as in breast milk and umbilical cord blood.

What Are the Possible Health Effects of PFAS?

Health effects of the various kinds of PFAS are still being researched, but a growing body of evidence has linked exposure to some of them to effects including the following:
  • Developmental issues
  • Cancer
  • Liver damage
  • Immune system disruption
  • Resistance to vaccines
  • Thyroid disease
  • Impaired fertility 
  • High cholesterol
PFAS have been dubbed “possibly carcinogenic” to humans by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the International Agency for Cancer Research (IARC). A study funded by DuPont also found that PFOA was most likely linked to six disease outcomes: kidney cancer, testicular cancer, thyroid disease, ulcerative colitis, high cholesterol and pregnancy-induced hypertension.

What Can You Do?

People can be exposed to these chemicals by consuming contaminated water or food  or by using products made with PFAS. More research is needed to fully understand all sources of exposure and the amount of contamination that food containers and other sources of PFAS exposure can cause. You can check EWG’s map of PFAS contamination in the US to see if water in your area might be affected, and ask your local health department and utilities company about the PFAS level in your water. You may also want to be cautious about using products made with PFAS, such as non-stick cookware, pizza boxes, and microwave popcorn packaging. It’s disheartening to know just how widely these chemicals have spread, and that they have already contaminated most people. Even more concerning is that PFAS levels in drinking water are still not widely regulated by the government; while the EPA has released advisory suggestions for chemical levels and stated that regulatory laws will be forthcoming, there is currently no legal enforcement of safe PFAS levels in water. Napoli Shkolnik PLLC fights against the harmful effects of PFAS by holding manufacturers accountable for water contamination. If you live in an area where contaminated water has affected your health, or if you have otherwise been affected by PFAS contamination, Napoli Shkolnik can help you receive compensation for medical care and other financial or non-financial loss that has occurred due to the contamination. We have taken on PFAS manufacturers multiple times over the last several years, from representing a New Mexico dairy farmer whose dairy license was suspended due to contamination of groundwater around his farm to our most recent class-action lawsuit representing members of the NRWA against PFAS manufacturers. Contact us today to get in touch with an environmental attorney who can review your case and help you receive compensation.