After years of practice and study in Functional Medicine, I have never had more clarity about how significantly environmental toxins impact our health. Everything from pesticides in our food, plastics and heavy metals can influence our metabolism, hormones, and immune system—and even make it frustratingly harder to lose weight.
Over the years I’ve been interested in other ways that toxins can affect our health and burden our body’s detoxification systems. I recently wrote about Harmful Algal Blooms and today I want to cover the topic of PFAS, a class of fluorinated pollutants that are silently contributing to a host of symptoms and disease.
I want you to leave this article with a sense of empowerment as opposed to doom and gloom, so let’s learn how you can lessen your personal exposures.
In this article, you will learn:
- What PFAS are
- What products contain PFAS
- The environmental concerns of PFAS
- The health concerns of PFAS
- What you can do to protect yourself and your family from PFAS
Per– and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances, or PFAS, are a family of around 5000 man-made chemicals that have been used since the 1940s. These fluorinated chemicals are resistant to grease, oil, and water and are used in many industries and consumer products.
PFAS are known as “forever chemicals” because they don’t break down in the environment; instead they can accumulate in ecosystems, animals and humans causing harm.
What Products Contain PFAS?
Here are some of the places where PFAS are used:
- Non-stick cookware (Teflon is an example)
- Water–resistant clothing including jackets, swimwear, shoes and popular “period panties” (look for: Scotchguard, Stainmaster, Polartec, Gore-tex)
- Cleaning products
- Stain-resistant furniture and carpets
- Food packaging, such as pizza boxes, fast food packaging and microwave popcorn bags
- Paint and sealants
- Waxes and polishes
- Pet food packaging and pet products
- Foams for fire fighting
Because of the high volume and widespread use of PFAS, we are exposed to them every day through the food we eat, water we drink and air we breathe.
“PFAS are known as “forever chemicals” because they don’t break down in the environment; instead they can accumulate in ecosystems, animals and humans causing harm.”
What Is PFAS Contamination?
Environmental effects of PFAS contamination can be far reaching. Because of their widespread use and the fact that they don’t degrade, PFAS comprise a large category of environmental pollution.
PFAS are found in the soil, and in some places in drinking water. More attention is being drawn to these issues and you may have heard about situations such as PFAS in drinking water in North Carolina. PFAS are widespread in rainwater and the Environmental Working Group estimates PFAS to be in drinking water from all major cities that use surface water as their main water source.
A 2019 feature film, Dark Waters, tells the story of an environmental suit against chemical company DuPont who was responsible for widespread contamination of drinking water by a PFAS known as “C8.” C8 has been phased out from DuPont’s Teflon, as other high profile PFAS have been phasing out of clothing and food packaging since 2015, but I still question the safety of chemicals that are used as replacements. And in the case of PFAS, the damage may already be in motion and continue to expand as the chemicals circulate through the environment.
What Does PFAS Do to Your Body?
PFAS accumulate in the human body and cause a host of health effects. We are exposed to PFAS through eating contaminated food, drinking water and through exposure to carpets, upholstery and soil. This is especially true for kids who play on the ground and on carpets and then put their hands in their mouths. You can also be exposed to PFAS by breathing air that is contaminated by soil, dust, carpets and fabrics.
“Because of the high volume and widespread use of PFAS, we are exposed to them every day through the food we eat, water we drink, and air we breathe.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control, PFAS interfere with hormones, increase cholesterol, affect the immune system and increase the risk for some cancers, and are essentially found in everyone’s blood, even those who live in very remote areas. PFAS cross the placenta from mother to baby and have also been found in breastmilk.
When I dove into the scientific literature on the subject, I found an abundance of studies linking PFAS to everything from obesity to fertility. Here’s what I discovered:
Health impacts of PFAS:
- Decline in male fertility: In animals, PFAS directly decrease sperm count. In humans, it appears that male fertility is impacted over the long-term by decreasing the stem cells that males are able to turn into sperm.
- Fertility: This review found that in 50% of studies, PFAS were associated with an increase in the amount of time it took a couple to get pregnant.
- Pregnancy: Prenatal PFAS exposure correlates with preeclampsia (high blood pressure during pregnancy.)
- Development: Prenatal and early-life exposures to PFAS may disrupt fetal thyroid function and increase the risk of children being overweight or obese.
- Childhood: PFAS may impact health of children, including high or imbalanced cholesterol levels, renal function and age of puberty.
- Altered metabolism: In adult women, higher concentrations of PFAS in the body may interfere with metabolism and weight regulation. Women showed a lower resting metabolic rate and greater weight regain following dieting. Another study showed PFAS increased the risk of type 2 diabetes in women.
- Reduced immunity: This study and others suggest that PFAS interfere with the body’s immune response to vaccinations.
- Reduced thyroid function: PFAS are associated with lower thyroid output of thyroid hormone (T4).
Throughout my research it is also important to note several studies that didn’t show a connection between PFAS and a certain health outcome or that authors suggested more research was needed. This inconclusiveness speaks to the limits of toxicology. Whereas most studies are looking at the connection between levels of a single, or small group of, chemicals and certain health markers, there are virtually no studies that take into account all of the chemicals we are exposed to on a daily basis in combination. Logic follows that the total toxin load is contributing to local and global health crises, even when specific studies can’t make direct causal connections.
How to Protect Yourself From PFAS
Of course, we need regulations at national and global levels in order to keep PFAS and other harmful compounds out of the environment, including drinking water and our food supplies. Since PFAS are not on everyone’s radar, my role as a doctor is to educate my patients and community about these topics.
“PFAS interfere with hormones, increase cholesterol, affect the immune system and increase the risk for some cancers, and are essentially found in everyone’s blood, even those who live in very remote areas.”
Since there are many toxin exposures we can’t control, I find it helpful to focus on what we can influence in our day-to-day lives. When it comes to PFAS there are some concrete ways to reduce your exposures and therefore the amount of PFAS that get stored in your body.
Here are my top wellness tips for avoiding PFAS:
1. Choose healthy cookware. This means avoiding non-stick cookware and utensils that are likely coated with PFAS. Instead choose:
- Cast iron– this is the most inexpensive option and a well-seasoned cast iron skillet (seasoned with avocado oil or ghee) is virtually non-stick. This solution is not recommended for everyone, however, as it may raise the dietary iron in your body to an unhealthy level for adult men, menopausal females, and others who may have hereditary iron conditions. So, if you use cast iron, check your iron levels periodically with your physician.
- High quality stainless steel (such as All Clad) – Food grade stainless steel is designated 304, 316 or 430 or you’ll see it listed as 18/8, 18/10 or 18/0. The first number represents the percent of chromium in the steel and the second is the percent of nickel. Metals only leach from stainless steel when they are scratched. I recommend that you gently clean stainless steel with non-abrasive cleaning tools and soaps and replace any pots and pans that have been scratched. If you are allergic to nickel, 18/0 might be the way to go.
- Enameled cast iron (such as Le Creuset) is another non-toxic option. Although these can be expensive, they are well worth the investment. However, it is also important here to avoid scratches.
- Glass baking dishes are a great alternative to non-stick bread pans, cake pans and casserole dishes. You can grease the glass with coconut oil or line with parchment paper as needed.
2. Cook more at home. In a recent study, those who ate out had higher levels of 5 specific PFAS in their blood than those who primarily cooked at home. Fast food and pizza restaurants seem to be the strongest correlated and the effects were higher for women than men. By cooking more at home, you also can use high–quality ingredients and fats. In fact, I think it is one of the most important things you can do for your health.
3. Filter your water. Since PFAS are widespread in drinking water and most municipalities aren’t regularly testing for it, investing in a high–quality water filter is one of the best ways you can protect yourself from this and other pollutants. See my guide to water filtration here. Many water filter companies have data on PFAS removal. For example, 3rd party testing of Berkey water filters showed the filter removed 99.9% of PFAS from the water.
4. Filter your air. This might be especially important if you rent or move into a new home where you are unsure of the materials used in the carpet or other building or design materials. Air filters are available for a whole house or as independent units you can use to filter specific rooms. High quality options are Austin Air, IQ Air and Quiet Pure. (You can get 5% off with IQ Air using my coupon code at checkout, which is 34255.)
5. Shop smart. Be wary of clothing that is “waterproof” or “water repellent” and instead choose natural fabrics and fibers as much as possible.
“Since there are many toxin exposures we can’t control, I find it helpful to focus on what we can influence in our day-to-day lives. When it comes to PFAS there are some concrete ways to reduce your exposures and therefore the amount of PFAS that get stored in your body.”
Knowledge is certainly powerful when it comes to avoiding toxins in your home and environment. I hope that you’ll walk away from this article feeling encouraged and with at least one action step that you can implement right away to lessen your PFAS exposure.
In addition to avoiding the exposures that you can, I also find it extremely important in today’s world to support the body’s own ability to detoxify. Get more information in my free report here.