How you can reduce your PFAS body burden

Individual actions can minimize exposure to “forever chemicals" until policy measures, like Maine’s ban on PFAS in products, take effect.

by | November 27, 2022

Minimizing sources of exposure to PFAS — in everyday items such as clothing, food packaging and personal care products — can help lower the body load of PFAS, a class of persistent industrial chemicals that endanger health as they accumulate. Photo by Fly View Productions/iStock.

Limiting new sources of exposure to per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) can gradually lower your accumulated chemical load, aptly known as your body burden. PFAS compounds can linger in bodies for decades, with concentrations in blood plasma taking up to eight years to decline by half. Growing scientific evidence suggests that even low levels of PFAS can disrupt hormonal, immune and reproductive systems, and can increase the risk of various cancers

RELATED: Coping with the inescapable toxicity of PFAS

To help reduce your PFAS body burden, here are some actions you can take:

Water

If you drink well water, check Maine’s sludge and septage permit map to see if your property is near a historic application site. Water testing information can be found on the DEP website. State-accredited tests are expensive (and those are the only ones that the state will reimburse if you’re in a high-risk area), but if you simply want a preliminary sense of your exposure risk, there is a more affordable screening test that performed well in a side-by-side comparison with accredited tests. 

If your public water supply contains PFAS (all water districts must report this information to the state by the end of 2022), consider water filter options such as activated carbon or reverse osmosis. Searching the NSF database for “PFOA reduction” will help you identify filters that address PFAS. The Environmental Working Group also has a water filter guide.

If you purchase bottled water, check directly with the company to see if it has results from PFAS testing. As of late August, according to the Bangor Daily News, many Maine bottled water companies were not testing for PFAS. 

Food

Avoid non-stick (“Teflon”) cookware. Instead, use seasoned cast-iron, glass, enamel or stainless steel. 

Avoid food packaging that can contain PFAS such as microwavable popcorn bags, fast food packaging, takeout containers and coated pizza boxes. 

Follow Maine’s fish consumption advisories and try to avoid buying fish harvested in highly contaminated areas

Follow deer consumption advisories for PFAS.

Certified organic farms are not allowed to spread sludge, but sludge spreading under prior ownership or spreading on neighboring lands may still affect organically grown products. Ask food producers whether they’ve tested for PFAS. 

Home

Keep young children off stain-treated carpets. The federal CDC notes that the greatest exposure to PFOA and PFOS for most infants and toddlers involves hand-to-mouth activities on these surfaces.

Avoid purchasing and using materials advertised as “water-resistant” and “stain-resistant.” A recent study found that these descriptors were a more reliable means of identifying PFAS in clothing than other labeling claims.

Avoid personal care products with PTFE or ingredients whose names contain “fluoro.” A database administered by the nonprofit Environmental Working Group can help identify safer options.

Use HEPA filters when vacuuming, dust with a damp cloth and keep heating/cooling unit filters clean.

Seek PFAS-free options for common household products, outdoor gear and other clothing. 

Select nylon or silk dental floss that is uncoated or coated in natural wax. 

Garden

Risks from eating homegrown produce will depend on three factors, according to the University of Maine Cooperative Extension: the level of PFAS in the soil, the type of crop grown and the volume of homegrown produce you consume. Typical soil tests do not assess PFAS. Specialized tests for PFAS are expensive and there are no health-based soil guidelines currently to help in assessing test results.

Avoid buying compost made from “biosolids,” “residuals,” or “municipal waste.” Those formulations should no longer be sold in Maine under a 2022 law, but check the label on bagged products and ask suppliers about ingredients to confirm. 

If you previously used substantial amounts of sludge-based compost on your home vegetable garden, review the University of Maine Cooperative Extension’s “Understanding PFAS and Your Home Garden“ website.

Initial research suggests that PFAS uptake into plants is highest in leafy greens and in leaves and stems, rather than the root, fruit or grain portions of plants. Crops like lettuce, kale and celery typically have higher levels than ones like tomatoes, cucumbers or peas.

If you compost, add only food and yard waste. Avoid “compostable” packages or other manufactured items that may contain PFAS.

Workplace

Research and follow any identified “best practices” to minimize PFAS exposure. Firefighters can consult guidance from the International Association of Fire Fighters, and construction workers can learn more from the Green Science Policy Institute. Some industries may not yet have guidance, such as the aeronautic and automotive industries — where PFAS may be used in hydraulic and lubricant fluids, engine oils and stain-resistant textiles. Minimize use of known sources of PFAS and do not store these materials in living spaces. 

If you have, or had in the past, likely exposure to PFAS (such as in food packaging paper production, firefighting, ski-waxing, custodial or automotive work), you may want to consider getting your blood tested for PFAS. While no means exist now to reduce PFAS levels in blood serum, greater knowledge of which compounds are there could help in monitoring for associated health risks. According to a National Academies report released this year, levels under 2 nanograms per liter are not associated with adverse health effects (with a nanogram being one billionth of a gram). Levels between 2 and 20 ng/l can increase risks, and levels over 20 ng/l are most concerning. The site PFAS Exchange offers more detailed guidance on PFAS blood testing.

 

This project was produced with support from the Doris O’Donnell Innovations in Investigative Journalism Fellowship, awarded by the Center for Media Innovation at Point Park University in Pittsburgh, Pa.

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Marina Schauffler

Marina Schauffler

Marina Schauffler is a writer and editor who explores the complex interconnections between ecology and culture. Her "Sea Change" column, launched in 2014, highlights ways to live more sustainably and address our collective environmental and societal challenges, particularly the climate crisis. She holds a Ph.D. in natural resources and an MA in English/creative nonfiction writing (both from the University of New Hampshire), and an interdisciplinary honors BA from Brown University.


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