PFAS in diet and other sources: The health risks

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PFAS — per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances — are synthetic chemicals with a myriad of industrial and cosmetic uses. However, their negative impacts on human health are extensive and continue to be investigated. In this feature, we discuss PFAS, where they are found, their potential health risks, and recommendations on reducing PFAS exposure.

Written by Amber Charles Alexis, MSPH, RDN on May 13, 2022 — Fact checked by Harriet Pike, Ph.D.

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Developed in the 1940sTrusted Source, per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are a family of over 9,000 chemicals with many industrial and cosmetic uses.

They were a breakthrough in technological advancements at the time, improvingTrusted Source textiles by making them water- and stain-resistant, adding flame retardant properties, and enhancing chemical stability for longer-lasting products.Their uses have since extended throughout the cosmetic and food industries.

PFAS are foundTrusted Source abundantlyTrusted Source in:

Yet PFAS are a double-edged sword — the chemical properties that make them excellent for industrial use are the same properties that threaten environmental and human health.

They have a long half-life, which makes them “persistentTrusted Source” chemicals. This means that they do not easily break down, so they subsequently accumulate throughout the environment, including in animal and human tissues.

Humans become exposed to PFAS predominantly through diet, as well as through contaminated drinking waterTrusted Source, skin contact from cosmetic and personal care products, indoor and outdoor air pollution, and early-lifeTrusted Source exposure during pregnancy or breastfeeding.

Although some researchTrusted Source shows that PFAS may be found in low and potentially non-hazardous levels in the environment, their overwhelming presence in common products and build-up in the human body pose significant safety and toxicity concerns.

In fact, a 2022 reviewTrusted Source indicates that PFAS are found in the blood of nearly all U.S. adults, and they accumulate in the liver.

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