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Forever Chemicals in Our Environment: What They Are and How to Avoid Them

December 7, 2023
Arthi Reddy, MD, Assistant Professor of Medicine at CUIMC

Arthi Reddy, MD, Assistant Professor of Medicine at CUIMC and internal medicine specialist at Columbia Primary Care Morningside Practice.

We assume we can turn on the tap and drink safe water, but this past summer, a U.S. Geological Survey study revealed that so-called "forever chemicals" were found in 45 percent of the drinking water they sampled.

Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFASs), are known as "forever chemicals" because they take a long time to break down, and are not good for us, according to several sources, including the EPA  and CDC. Forever chemicals have been linked to multiple health problems, including compromised immune systems, liver damage, thyroid diseases, increased cholesterol levels, hypertension, developmental delays in infants, and increased certain cancers such as kidney and testicular. And these chemicals are not just "forever." They are everywhere.

Forever chemicals have been found in everything from our drinking water to nonstick pans, stain-resistant and waterproof fabrics to make-up to food packaging and containers and have even been detected in our bodies.

“Even though their manufacture has been phased out in the US, they can still be present in imported goods. We also know that they remain in the body for a long time with a half-life of about four years,” says Arthi Reddy, MD, an internal medicine specialist at the Columbia Primary Care Morningside Practice.

In the environment, forever chemicals are primarily found in water and soil, and to a lesser extent, forever chemicals can be found in the air from evaporated water. Also, some factories release these chemicals into the air during manufacturing or as byproducts. Although not known as a "forever chemical," another chemical, PM2.5, are tiny airborne particles that irritate eyes, noses, and throats. PM2.5 comes from air pollution caused by wildfires or factory emissions and can penetrate deep into the lungs when inhaled. Some PM2.5 particles can be cleared from the lungs within a few days to weeks through coughing and sneezing, but some remain deeper into the lungs and stay there longer. Prolonged exposure to higher levels of PM2.5 can lead to these particles accumulating in the bloodstream. It may cause various health issues, such as inflammation, heart disease, diabetes, and asthma, possibly contribute to dementia, particularly in vulnerable individuals, and even shorten our life span.

Who is at Risk for Forever-Chemical Exposure?

The level of danger of forever chemicals and PM2.5 pose depends on a few things, including the length, extent, and concentration of exposure and an individual's weaknesses and health conditions. Some of the groups most affected by these chemicals are:

  • People living near factories, military bases, or locations with known forever chemicals contaminating water sources, air, and soil in these areas. 
  • People who work in factories that use or produce PFAS-containing products, such as manufacturing, firefighting, and wastewater treatment, may be at increased risk of exposure to higher levels of forever chemicals.
  • Pregnant women and infants. Forever chemicals can cross the placenta, and infants may also be exposed through breast milk.
  • Firefighters use firefighting foams containing forever chemicals during training, and firefighting operations may experience higher exposure levels due to the potential release of these chemicals during foam use.

“We know ingesting some amount of PFAS is bad, but we do not know exactly what the maximum safe dose is. There have not been enough large, statistically significant studies looking into this yet,” says Dr. Reddy.

How to Protect Yourself

Eliminating environmental chemicals can be challenging because they are widely used in various products and have been found in our drinking water and air pollution. However, there are steps you can take to reduce your exposure to these chemicals:

  • Avoid forever chemical-containing products and be mindful of products labeled as "stain-resistant," "water-repellent," or "nonstick," and choose alternative products that do not use PFAS.
  • Check product labels and look for terms like perfluoro, polyfluoro, or fluorinated on labels, which could indicate the presence of PFAS.
  • Filter drinking water and consider using a water filter designed to remove these chemicals. The Environmental Working Group has lists of water filters. 
  • Limit fast-food packaging as some wrappers and containers may be treated with PFAS to make them grease-resistant.
  • Outdoor products like tents, jackets, and camping equipment may be treated with PFAS to provide water and stain resistance. Look for PFAS-free alternatives or products labeled as eco-friendly and PFC-free (perfluorinated chemicals).
  • Stay indoors and use air purifiers and filters during periods of wildfires. If you go outside, wear a well-fitting N95 or KN95 mask.

Since chemical use is widespread, we may only be able to avoid it partially, but if we stay informed, keep awareness, and do a little homework, we can lower our exposure and minimize the health risks.

Dr. Reddy advises, “While it is good to minimize risk wherever possible, it is also important to remember that the dose makes the poison so some small quantity that we do ingest is likely to be unharmful.”




Arthi Reddy, MD, is an Assistant Professor of Medicine at CUIMC and an internal medicine specialist at Columbia Primary Care Morningside Practice.