Forever Chemicals: “The new asbestos?”

by | Oct 26, 2021

There is increasing concern about a category of chemicals called in layman terms as “forever chemicals” so called because they don’t break down in the environment. These chemicals include perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl compounds, collectively known as “PFAS”. Exposure to the chemicals has been linked to certain cancers, weakened immunity, thyroid disease, and other health effects. This pattern of research and regulations to control PFAS has many similarities to how the risks of asbestos was revealed decades ago and action had to be taken to remove it from the environment as much as possible.

After decades of research on the ill effects of these chemicals along with the health and environmental damage it causes as lead the Biden Administration’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to taken action by requiring chemical manufacturers to test and publicly report the amount of PFAS family of chemicals that is contained in household items like tape, nonstick pans, stain-resistant furniture and many other common items. These PFAS chemical have then seeped from common household and personal goods to our daily drinking water. This step by the EPA is the first toward reducing the presence of these chemicals.

There are thousands of chemicals classified as PFAS and they are ubiquitous in consumer products because they increase resistance to heat, stains, water and grease. The EPA plans to group the chemicals into 20 subcategories based on shared characteristics. By the end of 2021, the EPA will require manufacturers to test chemicals from each grouping, which the agency said will yield data on more than 2,000 PFAS to inform E.P.A. plans going forward. While there is a lot of cost to the chemical industry for doing this work, the forever effects have to be curbed and environmentally sustainable substitutes need to be found. For example, our men and women in service in the military and in our firefighting units are in particular risk as the chemicals are part of a foam used at military installations and by civilian firefighters to extinguish fires. The Department of Defense (DOD) is investigating how to clean up PFAS contamination in nearly 700 facilities.

Why is this important in personal goods and beauty products?

PFAS chemicals in are in several personal goods such as:

• Some grease-resistant paper, fast food containers/wrappers, microwave popcorn bags, pizza boxes, and candy wrappers
• Nonstick cookware
• Stain resistant coatings used on carpets, upholstery, and other fabrics
• Water resistant clothing
• Cleaning products
• Personal care products (shampoo, dental floss) and cosmetics (nail polish, eye makeup)
• Paints, varnishes, and sealants
These items seep into the chemicals into water and food that we consume.

Certain PFAS chemicals are intentionally added as ingredients in some cosmetic products, including lotions, cleansers, nail polish, shaving cream, foundation, lipstick, eyeliner, eyeshadow, and mascara while others make their way through unintentionally through raw ingredient contamination. When added intentionally, these PFAS are used in cosmetics to condition and smooth the skin, making it appear shiny, or to affect product consistency and texture. Reading the label of the products for the ingredients can be confusing so when in doubt, use products that clearly note that they do not contain PFAS. Some common PFAS used as ingredients in cosmetics include PTFE (polytetrafluoroethylene), perfluorooctyl triethoxysilane, perfluorononyl dimethicone, perfluorodecalin, and perfluorohexane.

Why is this all of concern?

PFAS has made its way into our daily lives. Getting rid of it completely is going to be difficult but the industries and brands that use PFAS need to be transparent about its use and ensure that the consumer is well informed. Ideally, over time, when other chemical substitutes are found, we can phase out the PFAS families that are known to be the most toxic.

In the meantime, start with the products you are directly applying to you body or consuming in foods or beverages. Eliminate that first and reduce the exposure from those sources as much as possible.

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