Minimizing Exposure to Harmful Chemicals in Common products

By Lindsey Johnson
Image of empty cooking pan

Science has developed some ground-breaking products over the years that make life easier for us. However, some of these products hit the market only to find out later that they include chemicals that cause long-lasting impacts to both human health and the environment. So, how do we minimize exposure to these harmful chemicals?

What are the chemicals?

In 1946, DuPont released Teflon, a type of nonstick cookware, to the market. This was the initial introduction of fluorinated chemicals called PFAS, an abbreviation for per- and poly-flouroalkyl substances. While DuPont was the initial company to use PFAS chemicals, 3M became the largest manufacturer with its Scotchgard water repellent product. PFAS chemicals are used in a wide variety of non-stick and water repellent products.

As studies uncovered the potential harm of these chemicals, a class action lawsuit was brought against DuPont for withholding information about knowing potential dangers, water contamination and not notifying employees or environmental officials.

PFOS and PFOA are called “long-chain” chemicals because they contain eight carbon atoms. After the health concerns were identified, there was significant pressure from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to phase out these chemicals. While they are no longer produced in the U.S., they are not banned from imported products.

As a replacement, there are now “short-chain” chemicals that have six carbon atoms. Although the EPA and FDA have allowed these substances to be introduced into the market, there is a growing body of research that shows they also pose significant health hazards, including the possibility of certain cancers.

What are the harms of exposure these common chemicals?

PFOS (an ingredient in Scotchgard) and PFOA (Teflon) have been linked to many health hazards. According to the Environmental Working Group (EWG), health effects include:

  • Weight gain (in both children and adults)
  • Endocrine disruption
  • Multiple cancers (pancreatic, liver, kidney, testicular)
  • Reproductive issues
  • Low birthweight
  • Weakened childhood immunity
  • Elevated cholesterol

How are we exposed?

Diagram of products with chemicals

Today, there are many products on the market that contain some formulation of these chemicals. While the original Teflon was taken off the market, the current non-stick pans contain a similar compound. Water and stain repellent clothes and furniture are another common culprit. Some cosmetics and personal care products contain PFAS chemicals, meaning people are putting them directly on their skin. These chemicals are commonly found on food wrappers used for bakery goods and fast-food items. With these chemicals on our food wrappers, they are soaking into our food, which we are then ingesting.

The EPA released a report in August 2023 that showed that PFAS contamination was discovered at 3,186 sites in 50 states, the District of Columbia and two territories. There are 475 industrial facilities that might be polluting the air with PFAS chemicals, according to EWG. Military sites are another culprit as they continued using PFAS-containing firefighter foam for decades after knowing the hazards.

The pollution caused by these sources allowed the chemicals to seep into the local water systems. According to the EWG, more than 200 million Americans may have dangerous levels of PFAS in their drinking water. In other words, these chemicals are everywhere.

Military sites are another culprit as they continued using PFAS- containing firefighter foam for decades after knowing the hazards. The pollution caused by these sources allowed the chemicals to seep into the local water system.

How can we avoid exposure?

Due to the prevalence of these chemicals, it may not (currently) be possible to avoid exposure to these harmful chemicals all together. Unfortunately, they don’t break down in the environment so once they are introduced, they are here to stay. While it might be virtually impossible to eliminate all exposure to PFAS, there are a few things you can do to minimize intentional exposure:

  • Replace nonstick cookware with stainless steel, glass or cast-iron options.
  • Remove food wrappers before heating up food.
  • Make popcorn in a popcorn maker or stovetop (skip the PFAS bags).
  • Avoid water or stain repellent clothing, furniture and rugs.
  • Check your clothing labels for information about PFAS or contact the manufacturer.
  • Replace any cosmetics or body care products with those free of PFAS.
  • Consider a water filter. Research options that remove PFAS.
  • Do NOT boil your water to sterilize it. Boiling can actually increase PFAS level.
  • Request PFAS report from local public water source.

While it may not be feasible to eliminate all potential exposure to harmful chemicals like PFAS (due to its overwhelming presence), being aware of the products adding hazards to our health and environment (and reducing or eliminating use of them) can help reduce the risk for yourself and others.

Swap It: Alternatives to Ammonia

Learn More About Pesticides: Is Our Food Safe?

How to Keep Your Scalp Healthy

Learn How to Prevent and Treat Kitchen Burns