Scientists Say: PFAS

Scientists have linked some of these lab-made “forever” chemicals to health issues

a hamburger, french fries and ketchup packets sit in an unfurled white paper fast-food wrapper

PFAS make fast-food wrappers grease-resistant. But these long-lived chemicals leach into our food, water and the environment. Studies have linked some of these chemicals to health and environmental problems.

Seth Joel Photography/Getty Images

PFAS (noun, “Pee-fahs”)

PFAS is the short-hand name for a family of substances that are used to make coatings for fast-food wrappers, non-stick pans and more. These chemicals are incredibly sturdy, which makes them useful. Unfortunately, that same property also makes PFAS a problem. When products containing PFAS are thrown away, these possibly toxic “forever” chemicals can endure in soil and water for many years. From the environment, they can enter the food we eat and the water we drink. This is not just a problem for people. PFAS also have been found in animals all over the world, from fish to polar bears.  

PFAS stands for per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances. These include roughly 9,000 chemicals. All contain many carbon-to-fluorine bonds. These bonds are among the strongest in the chemical world. That’s why these chemicals hold up in oil, water and extreme heat.

Many people encounter PFAS daily. Pizza boxes and candy wrappers get their grease-resistance from PFAS. Some carpets and clothing repel stains and water with PFAS coatings. Many school uniforms also contain PFAS. Even make-up and other cosmetics can contain these chemicals.

PFAS come in thousands of different forms. That makes it difficult to study how toxic they may be. Yet, studies suggest there is cause for concern.

Research shows that these chemicals can interfere with the molecules that cells use to talk with one another. And that causes health problems for both humans and the environment. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency warns that some PFAS can up someone’s chances of becoming overweight and developing certain cancers. Certain PFAS also mess with the body’s immune system. They even have been shown to reduce the effectiveness of vaccines. In the environment, PFAS can reduce fertility in animals.

These and other concerns have prompted researchers to seek healthier and more eco-friendly alternatives to PFAS.

In a sentence

A new study found potentially dangerous PFAS— or “forever” chemicals — in students’ school uniforms.

Check out the full list of Scientists Say.

Katie Grace Carpenter is a science writer and curriculum developer, with degrees in biology and biogeochemistry. She also writes science fiction and creates science videos. Katie lives in the U.S. but also spends time in Sweden with her husband, who’s a chef.

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