Toxic 'forever chemicals' are everywhere. Can you actually avoid PFAS? 4 strategies from experts

Although none of us would deliberately put ourselves or our loved ones in harm’s way, inadvertent exposure to environmental toxins may do that very thing. Perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl chemicals, collectively known as PFAS, are one such example and may be as dangerous as they are common.

PFAS — also known as "forever chemicals" because they don't break down in the environment or human body — are in the blood of most Americans due to their presence in food, water, household objects and more, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. PFAS exposure has been associated with a host of medical conditions, from heart disease to cancer to fertility problems.

Are there ways to avoid PFAS altogether? Eliminating exposure to them is no easy feat since PFAS are all around us. However the U.S. government has recently taken action to protect people from these chemicals, and there are some ways you can minimize your risk and limit your exposure as an individual.

EPA addresses forever chemicals in tap water

For the first time, on April 10, 2024, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency established national limits on several types of PFAS in drinking water, which includes tap water.

The EPA's rule for PFAS in drinking water includes:

  • The most-studied types of PFAS — PFOA and PFOS — cannot exceed 4 parts per trillion in public drinking water.

  • FNA and PFHxS (older versions of PFAS) and GenX chemicals (created to replace PFOA) are restricted to 10 parts per trillion.

These are the lowest limits that labs can detect and therefore that water systems can treat, NBC News reported. The EPA estimated that up to 10% of the country's water systems, affecting about 100 million people, will need to make changes to meet these standards.

However, for most of these chemicals, it takes "between two to eight years for the amount in our bodies to decrease by half. So we’re looking at years before we see some substantial decreases in our exposure over time,” Anna Reade, Ph.D., director of PFAS advocacy at the National Resources Defense Council, told NBC News.

What are PFAS?

PFAS is an umbrella term that refers to more than 12,000 man-made chemical compounds that contain various chemical structures with at least one common characteristic: the presence of carbon-fluorine bonds, which are one of the strongest bonds in chemistry.

What are PFAS used for?

“This chemical property makes PFAS very useful in coating materials used for waterproofing, non-stick surfaces, flame retardants and many more,” Darline Castro-Melendez, MS, an immunologist and microbiologist in the Scheible Lab at the University of Rochester Medical Center, tells

This bonding structure has the downside of also making PFAS resistant to environmental breakdown, however, which is why they are often called "forever chemicals."

“Due to the extremely stable nature of carbon and fluorine bonds, PFAS are very resistant to degradation and deconstruction compared with many other man-made chemicals,” notes Susie Dai, Ph.D., an environmental scientist at Texas A&M University.

Industrial usage of PFAS began in the 1940s, and their effects on human health were not identified for another 20 years. But even then, the chemicals continued to be used in manufacturing plants around the world, eventually causing them to make their way into the food chain and into surface water, groundwater and wastewater sources.

Their use became so widespread that a recent study by the U.S. Geological Survey found that 45% of America’s tap water is contaminated by at least one type of PFAS.

“Humans are exposed to PFAS primarily through eating and drinking contaminated food and water,” Jason Wu, Ph.D., a pharmacologist and nephrologist at the Institute for Human Health and the Environment at the University of Rochester Medical Center, tells

How are we exposed to PFAS?

In addition to this level of water contamination, these chemicals are also used in a host of everyday items including:

  • Food packaging

  • Non-stick cookware

  • Dental floss

  • Take-out containers

  • Gum wrappers

  • Drinking straws

  • Outdoor clothing

  • Pizza boxes

  • Medical devices

  • Electronics

  • Stain-resistant carpets and furniture

“Even some makeup, such as mascara, lipstick and eyeliner, contain PFAS because of its waterproof and long-lasting capabilities,” Erin Haynes, Dr.PH., a professor of preventive medicine and environmental health at the University of Kentucky College of Public Health tells

William Dichtel, Ph.D., a professor of chemistry at Northwestern University, tells that many food supplies have also been contaminated, as many freshwater fish live in water with PFAS, animals eat PFAS-contaminated grasses, and produce grow in or are irrigated with PFAS-contaminated soil or water.

One major way PFAS seep into food is when the chemicals are used in manufacturing, so it’s important that companies take steps to prevent PFAS from coming in contact with soil, water or outside air. Other companies use PFAS in ways that are much more “trivial,” Ditchel says. “No one needs PFAS-coated dental floss.”

The prevalence of PFAS is so common that one 2007 study detected a presence of the forever chemicals in 98% of Americans. “Because we have been slow to respond to their negative effects, PFAS have been incorporated into so many aspects of modern life that they are very hard to avoid,” Dichtel says.

Cumulative exposure to PFAS causes the most harmful effects, experts believe, so the less PFAS in your body, the better.

But “many PFAS are only slowly excreted from our bodies, which causes them to build up to higher concentrations over time,” says Scott Bartell, Ph.D., a professor of environmental and occupational health at the University of California, Irvine.

Because of this, limiting exposure, when possible, is critical. “Scientists have consistently found higher rates of certain health problems among people with higher PFAS exposures,” Bartell tells

What are the health effects of PFAS?

While we still don’t fully understand all of the molecular effects PFAS have on the body, some adverse consequences are known.

“PFAS are endocrine disruptors, so they alter how hormones work in the body,” explains DeLisa Fairweather, Ph.D., vice chair of translational research for the department of cardiovascular medicine at Mayo Clinic in Florida and a former toxicologist in the department of environmental health sciences at Johns Hopkins University. She tells that this is important because hormones regulate many cell and organ functions, “and thereby influence the development of disease.”

She and the other experts say that many medical conditions and adverse health outcomes have been associated with PFAS exposure. These include an increased risk of:

  • Heart disease

  • Kidney cancer

  • Testicular cancers

  • Obesity

  • High cholesterol

  • Immune disorder

  • Diabetes

  • Changes in liver function

  • Blunted effectiveness of vaccines

  • Negative effects on fetus in pregnancy, such as lower birth weigth and pregnancy-induced hypertension

How to avoid PFAS

Avoiding the health consequences of PFAS exposure requires both systemic change and making adjustments in one’s own daily behavior. “Prevention is the only way to reduce accumulation over time,” says Castro-Melendez.

Remove PFAS from your drinking water

On the individual level, one of the best places to start is making sure family members aren’t being exposed to drinking water from municipal sources. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) offers a free PFAS Analytic Tool that shows if the water supply where you live has been contaminated with PFAS. There are also a host of water testing kits you can purchase online and from retail stores that test for the presence of the chemicals in water sources.

If your water tests positive for PFAS, exposure to the chemicals can be avoided by using a carbon or reverse osmosis filtration system. “Whenever possible, avoid drinking unfiltered tap water,” cautions Wu.

Buy fewer products with PFAS in them

In addition to switching to purified water, you can limit PFAS exposure by avoiding:

  • Stain-resistant clothing, carpeting and furniture

  • Waterproof cosmetics

  • Food that’s packaged in grease-resistant paper and cardboard,

  • Any other products marketed as water- or stain-resistant.

“If it’s water- or stain-resistant and isn’t advertised as PFAS-free, then there’s a good chance it has PFAS,” says Bartell.

Replace non-stick cookware

“I’d also recommend replacing non-stick cookware with stainless steel, glass or a cast-iron alternative,” advises Castro-Melendez.

Hold the government accountable for regulating PFAS

Federal agencies have taken some steps to reduce PFAS exposure.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture announced in February that PFAS can no longer be used in food packing, and the production of some of the most dangerous PFAS has been banned in the U.S. altogether. In another good step, earlier this month the White House and EPA announced the first-ever limits on PFAS in drinking water.

“This will reduce exposure for many millions of people in the U.S.,” says Bartell. “But keep in mind that cities have five years to comply, so if I had PFAS in my tap water, I wouldn’t wait to filter it out.”

“There are still few federal standards to protect the public from being exposed,” Haynes adds.

In Bartell's opinion, the most important thing Americans can do to solve the PFAS problem for good “is to expect our elected officials to follow through on phasing out these toxic substances.”

This article was originally published on