If you put on a pair of soft contact lenses this morning you took a greater risk than you might realize. Soft lenses seem very eye-friendly; they’re smooth, comfortable, allow oxygen to reach the eye and, if they’re disposable, they don’t give bacteria any time to grow. What’s not to like? Well, one very important thing, actually.
According to tests commissioned by the consumer watchdog site Mamavation and the green group Environmental Health News, a random sampling of 18 popular brands of soft lenses sent to an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)-certified lab all tested positive for PFAS, short for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances. Also known as “forever chemicals”—because that’s pretty much how long they linger in the environment—these persistent manufacturing chemicals exist in more than 12,000 forms, and have been linked by the EPA to a long list of health effects, including decreased fertility, high blood pressure in pregnant people, increased risk of certain cancers, developmental delays and low birthweight in children, hormonal disruption, high cholesterol, reduced effectiveness of the immune system, and more.
Not any level of PFAS exposure will lead to these health consequences, of course. And even heavy exposure does not necessarily mean that you’re going to get sick; putting in your contact lenses every morning is not a sure road to cancer or high cholesterol. But enough of these ills have turned up in enough people exposed to PFAS that the EPA and the larger community of scientists are justifiably worried about them—especially because of their persistence in the environment.
“This entire class of chemicals is probably the most persistent class of manmade chemicals that have ever been made,” says Scott Belcher, an associate professor of biological sciences at North Carolina State University, who was a scientific advisor for the contact lens study. “Once they’re there, they’re not going away.”
PFAS are included in uncounted products from clothing to furniture to pizza boxes to food wrappers to cooking utensils to electronics to fire-fighting foam to shoes and much, much more. The chemicals are used to make pots and pans non-stick; textiles more durable and stain resistant; food packaging resistant to grease; shoes and clothing water-resistant; and paper and cardboard stronger, among multiple other uses. So widespread is the planet’s PFAS load that, according to one 2022 study in Environmental Science and Technology, the chemicals actually fall from the sky in rain, with the clouds having picked up PFAS in water evaporating from contaminated oceans.
“Every raindrop has PFAS in it,” says Belcher. “It is really earth-shaking for me and eye-opening for folks.”
For most people, however, everyday life inside their homes is where they’re most likely to encounter PFAS on a regular basis. Here is a non-exhaustive list of some personal possessions and parts of your household that are exposing you to forever chemicals:
Body care products including shampoo, dental floss, toilet paper, tampons, and pads
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) lists many brands in these product categories as harboring PFAS, which are added to the products because the chemicals make them more durable, water resistant, or smoother spreading. But those qualities come at a price: some of the products, like dental floss and shampoo, are used in the mouth or near the eyes—mucus membranes that readily absorb contaminants. Multiple brands of both floss and shampoo now advertise themselves as PFAS-free, and the number of such products is growing.
In February, Mamavation and Environmental Health News conducted a study of PFAS in menstrual care products, including tampons, pads, sanitary napkins and period underwear, and found most of them contaminated to one degree or another with the forever chemicals. (Mamavation is not a scientific organization but a self-established wellness site, and Leah Segedie, its founder and editor, is not a scientist, but an author and consumer activist. Still, she conducts her PFAS studies only in conjunction with certified labs.)
In March, a study published in Environmental Science and Technology Letters found PFAS in most brands of toilet paper sold around the world, a huge problem in the U.S. where over 19 billion lbs. of wastepaper are flushed away annually, posing a massive disposal and wastewater contamination problem. (A bidet eliminates the problem of toilet paper almost entirely, though most U.S. households are not equipped with them.)
Beauty products including nail polish and eye makeup
Nail polish can leach stray PFAS into the mouth when people eat a meal or bite their nails, and mascara is applied directly to the region around the eyes, contaminating them the same way contact lenses do. “Yes, there’s a downside to eliminating PFAS from eye makeup,” says Erik Olson, senior strategic director for the Natural Resources Defense Council. “Without it, your mascara would run. But I think if you actually presented people with a choice, a lot of them would decide not to use the PFAS in their products.” Not wearing makeup at all is, of course, is another solution.
You handle them all day and they’re just teeming with PFAS. You may not be able to touch the circuit boards, semiconductors, and insulated wiring that use PFAS, but you certainly touch the screen, which has PFAS coating to resist fingerprints. The bad news: it’s not just mucus membranes that can pick up PFAS. A 2020 study in Food and Chemical Toxicology determined that PFAS molecules can be absorbed through the skin. That’s especially true of the shorter-chain PFAS molecules, which infiltrate skin surfaces and ultimately the bloodstream more efficiently than longer chain ones. None of this was considered—or at least shared with the public—when the phones were being designed and marketed, “Honestly,” says Olson, “I think there was no scrutiny of this problem and no disclosure [of the presence of PFAS in cell phones] required.”
They’re soft, they’re comfy, and you spend an average of eight hours a day laying on them, separated only by a sheet. If PFAS chemicals can penetrate the skin, they are easily small enough to make it through the pores of a woven sheet. It’s the stain- and moisture-resistance PFAS provide that explains what they’re doing in the pads, but that comes at a price: Another Mamavation study found up to 807 parts per million of PFAS in multiple brands of mattress covers. How bad is that? Very bad. “PFAS are extremely toxic at doses as low as parts per trillion or quadrillion,” says Olson.
It’s tough, it’s water-resistant and it’s manufactured to last. That’s the sweet spot for PFAS. One study at Duke University last year found PFAS in six of 10 popular paint brands sampled. The study also determined that in some brands there was off-gassing of PFAS, which reduces the overall concentration of the chemical in the paint on the wall, but disperses it into the air, where it can be inhaled.
And speaking of the air…
If PFAS are getting into your home through furniture, fabrics, electronics, personal care products, and more—and they are—they’re not going to stay put. Fabrics especially are notorious spreaders of PFAS into the air—and what gets into the air gets into your lungs.
“House dust is a source of contamination and we’re becoming increasingly aware of it through research,” says Belcher. One study, published in 2017 in Chemosphere, found dryer lint a source for PFAS-contaminated dust. Another, conducted last year by investigators at Yale University and published in Current Environmental Health Reports, sampled residences, work environments, and childcare centers and found PFAS were ubiquitous both in the air and on surfaces. “Dust collected from the top of door frames or windows or from carpets can be used to [infer] a person’s exposure to pollutants in the air,” said Krystal Pollitt, an assistant professor of epidemiology at the Yale School of Public Health and senior author of the study, in a statement. Settled dust, the researchers stress, is especially dangerous for infants and children, who spend extended time on floors where they may inhale or ingest the PFAS-contamination.
One straightforward solution is to keep your house as clean as possible. “The best thing for the dust is to clean it up,” says Segedie. “You need to, get rid of it as much as you possibly can—especially if you have little children, because those babies are far more vulnerable to these persistent chemicals than we are as adults.”
Many carpets are designed to be stain- and water-resistant and the chemicals used to give them those properties are filled with PFAS. According to one report from the Washington State Department of Health, up to 90% of carpets on the market that were tested had detectable levels of PFAS in them.
In 2019, Home Depot announced it would no longer sell carpets containing PFAS, and other retailers have followed suit. But carpeting is not the kind of purchase consumers make every year, and most homes still have carpets that were laid down before the switchover began.
It’s not just the carpets that contain PFAS, it’s the padding underneath. In 2021, Mamavation conducted a lab study of two new brands of carpeting and found them PFAS-free. But the rubbery padding did not fare so well. “No one’s looking into the padding,” says Segedie. “Carpeting’s getting better. But the padding? That’s still a problem.”
All manner of food packaging, from plastics to grease-resistant paper to pizza boxes are loaded with PFAS, and what gets into the packaging can leach into the food.
Many consumers are aware that food packaging can be problematic—but what they might not know about is the risk of fresh foods like fish and dairy products. PFAS pollution is widespread in both the oceans and freshwater lakes and rivers, where it readily contaminates the flesh of fish. According to one study published in March in Environmental Research, consuming a single serving of freshwater fish could be the equivalent of a month’s worth of drinking water contaminated with PFOS (perfluorooctane sulfonic acid)—an especially toxic form of PFAS—at above the level of 0.02 parts per trillion (ppt), which is what the EPA has established as a safe threshold for PFOS.
Dairy products are less risky. Last year, the Department of Health and Human Services conducted a study of milk samples from 13 different cattle farms around the country and concluded that in all but one sample, the PFAS levels were below detection limits. One caveat though: The milk that was studied came directly from the cows. Supermarket milk could be picking up PFAS from the plastic bottles or plasticized paper in which it’s packaged.
Yoga pants and sports bras
After conducting its tests into menstrual products, Mamavation started testing women’s exercise wear and the results have been troubling. Roughly 25% of the yoga pants tested had PFAS in the crotch area—likely to control moisture. As with the menstrual products, this is a particular problem since the vaginal area is highly vascularized, making it especially sensitive to contamination. About 65% of sports bras sampled also showed the presence of PFAS, especially over the nipple area. This, warns Segedie, is a particular problem for new mothers and their babies. “Let’s say you put the baby down and you’re exercising,” she says. “Then the baby starts to cry, you’re sweaty, you pull down that sports bra and boom, you’re breastfeeding the baby with a potential hazard.”
The EPA has set water supply limits for only two especially toxic and common types of PFAS: the 0.02 ppt limit for PFOS and a 0.004 ppt limit for PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid) That still leaves some 12,000 other PFAS chemicals unregulated, and since the EPA does not mandate nationwide testing of water supplies for PFAS, the concentration across the U.S. is unknown—but independent experts believe it to be high. Groundwater leaching from airports and military sites, where fire-fighting foam is regularly used—which has been found to be heavily contaminated by the forever chemicals—can become contaminated. Reservoirs fed by PFAS-carrying rain can be toxified too.
The EPA estimates that 70 to 94 million Americans are drinking tap water contaminated with some form of PFAS. Other researchers, from the Environmental Working Group, put the figure much higher—at 200 million people. Whatever the actual number, there’s danger coming out of the taps of too many Americans. And, warns Olson, switching to bottled water is not a solution: PFAS have been detected there too, either contaminated from the original source of the water or by the plastic bottle in which it’s sold.
Fortunately, some improvements are on the way. On Mar. 14, the EPA took action, announcing a new proposed regulation to eliminate four more of the most common and dangerous PFAS from the national water supply. Following a 90-day public comment period, the rule will be formally promulgated by the end of the year, and water systems nationwide would then have three years to install filters or change the wells and other sources from which they draw their water to ones that are free of the targeted PFAS.
And still more
The list of PFAS-containing items in your home by no means ends here. There’s also: plumber’s tape (by definition, it needs to be waterproof, and PFAS provides that feature); guitar strings (PFAS work as so-called elastomers, providing stretchiness and resilience); candy wrappers (the PFAS prevent the candy from sticking to the plastic); bicycle chain lubricant (the PFAS repel dirt and water and reduce friction); microwave popcorn bags (the PFAS make the paper non-stick); dishwasher and laundry detergent (PFAS help to break down grease). And on and on.
Of course, not every brand of these items necessarily contains the forever chemicals. And if you are concerned, there are a host of websites that provide guides to PFAS-free products, including ones sponsored by the Environmental Working Group, the Center for Environmental Health, the EPA, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and many more. Careful research and selective shopping can limit your exposure to PFAS.
Forever chemicals will be with us, well, forever. The best step now, say the experts, is to eliminate them from products as fast as possible and quit making the problem worse. “They are going to be with us as a legacy,” says Belcher. “And we keep adding to that pile of pollution we’re living in.”
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