Read the full article by Tom Perkins (The Guardian & Type Investigations)
“After spending several months reporting on the PFAS crisis, I had an alarming realization: taco night might be poisoning me.
I learned that the type of nonstick pans that I used to fry the fish usually contain the toxic chemicals, also called per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances. Research alerted me to their use in some types of parchment paper, which I used to roll tortillas, while the aluminum foil in which I wrapped leftovers raised a red flag with its ‘nonstick’ label. For dessert, I purchased cookies that a local bakery packed in the type of paper bags sometimes treated with PFAS, and the chemicals may have been in my tap water and fish.
But PFAS, dubbed ‘forever chemicals’ because they don’t naturally break down, aren’t only lurking in the kitchen. The synthetic compounds are often used to make thousands of everyday products water, stain and grease resistant, and they’re popular with manufacturers across dozens of industries because they’re so effective. That’s a problem because the class of about 4,700 compounds is linked to serious health problems like cancer, heart disease, birth defects, liver disease and decreased immunity.
The extent of PFAS contamination is only now coming into focus – studies have found drinking water supplies for well over 100 million people across demographic lines may be contaminated by the chemicals. It’s estimated that they’re present in 97% of Americans’ blood, and public health advocates are just starting to understand how widespread their use is in everyday products.
Research has found that PFAS might also be in my dental floss, waterproof boots, umbrella, mattress pad, bike chain lube, cellphone, clothing, camping gear and more. They’re used in a range of personal care products from moisturizer to bar soap to cosmetics by a number of brands. Meanwhile, my couch and carpet may have been treated with Scotchgard or other stain guards that use PFAS to make products stain resistant.
The more I dug into the chemicals’ myriad uses, the more I found that I’m potentially exposed to them in nearly every facet of daily life in my house.
I soon began to scan my home for products that potentially contained them and anxiously wondered: ‘Am I being poisoned by a steady drip of PFAS?’
I set out to answer that question by checking dozens of household items, my tap water and blood samples from my cat, Ling Ling, and me for the chemicals. I sent the results to toxicologists and PFAS researchers who provided insight on what they mean and helped answer my question. The testing was performed by two independent laboratories that are among the few nationwide that can conduct such analyses.
Testing confirmed that my and Ling Ling’s blood is contaminated with PFAS. The levels for several compounds are what Graham Peaslee, a University of Notre Dame PFAS researcher, called ‘unusually high’ and at quantities at which toxicologists say they start seeing links to health problems. Some experts who reviewed the results said they believe a case that I am being slowly poisoned could be made, but they also cautioned that PFAS’s presence in my blood doesn’t necessarily mean I’ll ever become sick.
And while testing indicated the chemicals’ use in products throughout my home, it’s unclear how they contributed to my blood’s contamination, and the project often raised more questions than it answered.
The results and uncertainty are, in a word, distressing.
‘They’re coming from so many places’
Labs detected or I was able to confirm the chemicals’ presence in 15 common products, and there are undoubtedly more in items that weren’t checked. State regulators since 2018 have been monitoring drinking water supplies and my tap water test came back clean, but it’s possible that it has been contaminated in the past.
Blood tests revealed four types of PFAS compounds in my and Ling Ling’s blood. They’re among the most common used by industry, and three exceeded the median US blood levels for adult humans. That included PFHxS, which was measured in my blood at 2.7 nanograms per liter, and in Ling Ling’s blood at about 13 nanograms per liter. The US median for humans is about one nanogram per liter.
Though the amount of PFAS in our blood is minuscule, the levels for each compound (except one) are above US medians, and that could present a health threat, said Erika Schreder, a toxicologist with Toxic Free Future. The Seattle-based non-profit studies PFAS contamination and pushes industry to find alternatives to the chemicals.
‘Unfortunately, we do see that typical levels can be tied to certain health issues, like reduced immunity, so that is definitely a concern,’ Schreder said after reviewing my results.
Just as it’s impossible to know how many cigarettes cause cancer, there’s no clear level of exposure to PFAS that will cause health problems. Ling Ling and I may still be exposed to the chemicals and I worry about what it could mean for us 10 or 20 years down the road. Carla Ng, a University of Pittsburgh researcher who models PFAS’s bioaccumulation in organisms, called the persistent cultural misconception that exposure to chemicals isn’t a problem if it doesn’t immediately harm us ‘old-fashioned’.
‘We’re understanding that a lot of the long-term chronic disease that people have can links back to these cumulative exposures over their lifetime,’ Ng added. ‘It’s not just about keeping somebody from keeling over, it’s about reducing the overall burden of environmentally associated diseases in the US population, which is pretty big…”