What Are Forever Chemicals And How Can You Avoid Them?

The Eco Experts

Forever chemicals are a group of chemicals that don’t easily break down

They’re present in many everyday products, such as non-stick cookware

In high levels, they can cause health issues in humans and animals

Forever chemicals have become a bit of a buzzword lately because of the health concerns they pose when people are exposed to large quantities of them.

The term designates a large group of different man-made chemicals that are present in a variety of products, both commercial and industrial.

We’ll go over what exactly forever chemicals are in this article, as well as what products they’re found in, and the risks they pose to our health and the environment. Plus, we’ll give you tips on how to avoid them.

lab bottles filled with different coloured liquids on a table

What are forever chemicals?

Forever chemicals are a group of around 9,000 man-made chemicals that don’t easily break down in the environment or in human or animal bodies.

These substances are also referred to as PFAs (per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances), PFOSs (perfluorooctanesulfonic acid), and PFOAs (perfluorooctanoic acid).

Forever chemicals are a source of anxiety because they have the potential to accumulate and cause negative effects in the environment, in humans, and in animals.

Where can forever chemicals be found?

Forever chemicals can be found in a lot of consumer and industrial products, which is why it’s hard to avoid them and stop their spread.

The most commonly cited example of a consumer product with a forever chemical is non-stick cookware – the non-stick coating is the guilty culprit in this scenario.

However, forever chemicals can also be found in the plastic packaging of some food items, certain textile fabrics, cleaning products, cosmetics, and even toilet paper. The list goes on and on.

Unfortunately, when the chemicals leak from these products, they end up everywhere, from the dust in our homes, to food and drink, and eventually our bodies.

How harmful are forever chemicals to humans?

Forever chemicals can have harmful effects on humans.

They can increase our risk of developing health conditions such as cancer, liver disease, obesity, and fertility issues, according to the European Environment Agency.

Studies have also concluded that forever chemicals can affect the immune system, and make vaccines less effective, especially in children.

Low levels of forever chemicals aren’t necessarily harmful. The problem comes when we’re exposed to high levels of them. Unfortunately, since they’re in almost everything we eat, drink, and touch, the likelihood of this happening is high.

Are there forever chemicals inside you?

There’s a high likelihood that forever chemicals are inside you. They’ve even been found in people from remote Inuit communities, according to non-profit organisation PFAs Free.

The most likely way you’ve ingested forever chemicals is through food and water, where they can be present in low levels.

In the case of water, the Drinking Water Inspectorate (DWI) does have guidelines for water companies in England and Wales on what levels of forever chemicals are acceptable. But that doesn’t mean that none are allowed.

The current limit is 0.1 micrograms per litre, but this rule only applies to certain, and not all, forever chemicals.

woman sitting on sofa clutching her stomach in pain

Are forever chemicals bad for the environment?

Forever chemicals are bad for the environment, particularly when it comes to wildlife. They can have harmful effects on the health of animals, just as they do in humans.

This can lead to species decline, and reduce biodiversity over time. This is particularly concerning when it comes to endangered species, which are already vulnerable.

Studies have shown that forever chemicals cause fertility issues, kidney problems, and cancer in lab animals. It’s reasonable to assume these negative health effects can also occur in wild animals.

This is concerning, considering forever chemicals have polluted much of the environment.

According to the NGO Wildlife and Countryside, 77% of rivers in the UK would fail the European Union’s new standards regarding safe levels of certain forever chemicals.

Microplastics, which are present everywhere in the environment, have similar negative health effects on wildlife. You can read more about plastic pollution on our page Plastic Bottle Waste.

Have forever chemicals been banned in the UK?

Forever chemicals have not been banned in the UK.

However, the government is being pressured to tighten regulations around safe levels of these chemicals in water.

This comes after the US introduced new, reduced limits for the amount of forever chemicals that can be present in drinking water. They must now not exceed 4 nanograms per litre, although these limits only apply to two substances that fall under the forever chemical umbrella.

The current limits advised by the DWI in the UK are 25 times higher than those proposed by the US, at 0.1 micrograms per litre for those same substances.

The US has historically been behind Europe when it comes to protecting its citizens from harmful substances (and is often accused of prioritising profit over health), so this should be a good motivator for the UK to tighten restrictions in this particular area.

How to avoid forever chemicals

It’s impossible to completely avoid forever chemicals, but you can reduce your exposure to them by adopting certain habits.

We’ll go over a few tips for limiting your exposure to forever chemicals in the following sections.

Get a water filter

Forever chemicals are present in tap water, so by getting a filter installed in your tap or a filter jug, you can help reduce your exposure. Not all filters can remove forever chemicals, so look for one that explicitly says it does.

Avoid fast food and takeaways

Forever chemicals are present in a lot of fast food and takeaway packaging. Reducing your intake of these foods will not only limit your exposure to forever chemicals, it can also help keep your diet healthy.

Try not to cook with non-stick pans

The coating on non-stick pans contain forever chemicals, which can leak into food as you cook it. Try to use cast iron or stainless steel pans instead. If that’s not possible, try to cook your food on low heat to reduce the chance of forever chemicals leaking into it.

Avoid buying furniture or carpets labelled “stain-resistant”

While it might be practical, a lot of the coating and materials used to make furniture and carpets stain-resistant contain forever chemicals. Opt for natural materials in a dark colour if you’re worried about stains.

Regularly vacuum your home

Forever chemicals often end up as dust in homes. Regular vacuuming will help remove these chemicals from your home environment. You also have a clean home as an added bonus.

Try not to buy items with forever chemicals in them

Look at product labels before you buy them. Two common forever chemicals that are in everyday products will appear on labels as “fluoro” and “perfluoro”.

Next steps

Forever chemicals are present everywhere in the environment. Because they don’t break down, there’s a risk of them accumulating in our bodies and causing health problems.

You might not be able to completely avoid forever chemicals, but you can limit your exposure to them and stop their spread by choosing products that don’t contain them. That’s the best you can do as an individual.

Ultimately, solving the issue of forever chemicals is up to world governments. They need to impose harsher limits on the use of forever chemicals in products.

Forever chemicals: FAQs

Brita water filters might be able to filter out some forever chemicals, but they won’t get rid of all of them. There are some companies that offer filters designed specifically to filter out more than 90% of forever chemicals, such as Zero Water.

The most well-known type of forever chemicals are PFAs, which are present in the coating of non-stick, grease or stain resistant products. Teflon non-stick pans, for example, are a popular product that contain PFAs.

Some but not all bottled water contains PFAs. A 2021 study conducted by Johns Hopkins University found that 39 out of 101 different bottled water products had PFAs. The study showed products labelled as “purified” were less likely to have PFAs.
Written by:
Tatiana has written about multiple environmental topics, including heat pumps, energy-efficient household products, and solar panels. She is dedicated to demystifying green tech to make eco-friendly living more accessible.
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