What You Need to Know About the Chemicals We’re Exposed to Every Day and Ingest Without Realizing
‘Forever chemicals’ are all around us — in the nonstick cookware we use, in the paint on our walls, in our food and water, and probably also in our blood. It’s a class of 5,000 chemicals, collectively called PFAS, that are known for their perseverance and longevity. Countries around the world, the United States in particular, have struggled in recent years to regulate the use of these chemicals in everyday household products, while research into their effects remains in its early, inconclusive stages.
In India, these ‘forever chemicals’ go completely unregulated, even as public concern for this robust group of toxic chemicals slowly mounts around the world.
What are PFAS?
Elaborated to per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances, PFAS comprise chemicals that are resistant to water, heat, and oil, a quality that explains their ubiquity in household appliances such as water-resistant cleaning supplies, nonstick cookware, and food packaging, and in the manufacturing of plastic. PFAS are made up of chemical bonds that don’t break down easily, lending their presence a ‘forever’ element in drinking water, soil, food, and even in the human bloodstream.
How are PFAS harmful?
Since it’s a class of more than 5,000 substances, scientists have found it difficult to come to conclusions around which chemicals are harmful, in what concentrations, and how. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has been investigating PFAS for 20 years, but still hasn’t set a limit for its concentrations in consumer products. One of the first instances of identifying harm from PFAS occurred in 2005, during a class-action lawsuit against chemical company DuPont. Scientists at the time found a “probable link” between one PFAS chemical, called PFOA, and long-term health risks associated with cancer and thyroid disease.
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Recent studies also tie PFAS to cardiovascular disease, ovarian insufficiency, lower testosterone levels in male adolescents, elevated blood pressure, decreased lung function in children with asthma, to name a few conditions, though the chemicals have not been proven as causes.
“I think we have growing information that at least some members of this class can be problematic,” microbiologist and director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences in the U.S., Linda Birnbaum, tells NPR. “Realizing that these chemicals have escaped into the environment, how are we going to remediate those problems? How are we going to get rid of these chemicals?”
Where are PFAS present in India?
PFAS are unregulated in India, according to a report by the International Pollutants Elimination Network (IPEN), an international alliance of hundreds of NGOs that track pollution and its health effects around the world. India has been a part of the Stockholm Convention of 2006 that listed and banned certain persistent organic pollutants, a list in which PFOS — another PFAS chemical — was added in 2009. India has not accepted this amendment yet and has made no move to regulate other chemicals in the PFAS class, IPEN states.
Aside from household appliances, multiple studies show high PFAS concentrations in Indian rivers, in groundwater, in particulate air pollution, and in breast milk (found to be considerably higher than limits set by some states in the U.S. for drinking water).
How do we know if the products we’re buying have PFAS?
IPEN conducted a study in Delhi NCR and found some companies marked their cookware as PFOA-free but noted this label did not mean the cookware was PFAS-free, meaning it could contain any number of the other chemicals in the class. For now, “there is no comprehensive information available on production, use and waste management for PFAS in India,” which has led to low awareness of the health issues PFAS pose, and the investigations we need to get to the bottom of these “forever chemicals.”