In 2019, it's easy to order food straight from an app on your phone and have it delivered in minutes. But when you order takeout, you might be eating out of food containers that are made up of a whole host of chemicals you know nothing about. All the while, you may have never considered what PFAS are, or whether you've been exposed to them.
PFAS, known as "Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances," are a group of over 5,000 man-made chemicals that are impossible to break down, both in the environment and in the body, according to the EPA. PFAS are found in a number of sources, the EPA reports, including food packaging (like compostable food containers), in commercial household products, in workplace facilities, in drinking water, and even in living organisms like fish.
First things first: no, you're not likely to experience intensely adverse health effects by eating a single salad out of a food container that has traces of PFAS. But according to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, it's possible that prolonged exposure to PFAS may lead to a number of negative side effects, like fertility issues for women, and growth and learning disabilities in children and toddlers.
Susan M. Pinney, PhD, a professor in the Department of Environmental Health at the University of Cincinnati, told CNN, "Exposure in utero may have the greatest effect on developing children ... and effects may last into adulthood." Still, many scientists have maintained that there's nowhere near enough research on all of the PFAS chemical types to determine the full extent of their impact, NPR reports.
Erika Schreder, the science director for Toxic Free Future, an organization that "advocates for the use of safer products, chemicals, and practices," per its site, spoke to Bustle about why you should care about PFAS exposure, and what you can do about it.
The problem with PFAS, Schreder explains, is that "once we make these chemicals they’re not going away." What's more, it's virtually impossible for a consumer to know if they're ingesting a product that's been treated with those chemicals, Schreder adds. There's no way to taste or see their presence.
The good news is that there's a precedent for regulating these types of chemicals. Schreder notes that Whole Foods and Trader Joe's are examples of massive companies and distribution centers that have pledged to move to PFAS-free alternatives for food packaging.
Similarly, the state of Washington passed legislation in May that requires stricter regulation on the chemicals found in consumer packaging and products, particularly in relation to PFAS, according to The National Law Review. And in 2018, the city of San Francisco banned PFAS chemicals in single use food containers.
If you're concerned about the potential impact of PFAS exposure, Schreder says your best bet is pressuring lawmakers. "Because these chemicals are available in so many kinds of products, the best thing you can do is ask your local and state lawmakers to ban these products," she explains. "You could also ask your local restaurant or grocery [store] whether their containers contain PFAs," she notes. And if they do, she suggests you should look for "a safer alternative."