What are ‘forever chemicals’ and how can you avoid them?

What are forever chemicals?
Studies have connected forever chemicals to cases of several types of cancer, including testicular cancer and breast cancer.

Revolutionary synthetic chemical compounds first developed in the 1930s ushered in decades of new products geared toward making life better—or at least more convenient—for consumers: from nonstick frying pans to stain-resistant carpeting, from air fresheners to soft contact lenses.

Many of these compounds are now being replaced because of their toxic nature and the health concerns they raise, including their potential for causing cancer. Often called “forever chemicals,” these substances may be absorbed by the body—or in nature—and are more likely to accumulate than go away, as they break down very slowly.

While the use of some forever chemicals has been significantly curtailed in recent decades, new versions with unknown health effects continue to be manufactured—with nearly 15,000 different synthetic compounds created to date. The substances may be found virtually everywhere and in virtually everything, including most drinking water supplies and more than 600 species of wildlife.

In June, one compound manufacturer agreed to pay $10.3 billion as part of a court settlement to municipal water suppliers that found—or will find in the future—these forever chemicals in their drinking water. The money will be used to test for the chemicals and clean up the water if they are found. Other manufacturers also agreed in June to pay a $1.19 billion settlement, according to a report in The New York Times.

Forever chemicals have been linked to impaired fertility, cases of high blood pressure, interference with hormones, liver damage, thyroid disease, obesity, high cholesterol levels, weakened immune systems and developmental defects in children. More recently, studies have connected them to cases of testicular cancer, ovarian cancer, kidney cancer and breast cancer.

In this article, we’ll explore:

If you’re interested in getting screened for cancer or if you’ve been diagnosed with cancer and want a second opinion, call us or chat online with a member of our team.

What are forever chemicals?

Some forever chemicals have been used to make products that repel water, grease and oil. The compounds combine fluorine and carbon atoms, a bonding not otherwise found in nature.

The chemical compounds are called PFAS, for polyfluoroalkyl and perfluoroalkyl substances.

A partial list of products that have contained PFAS includes:

  • Nonstick cookware
  • Soft contact lenses
  • Plastic water bottles
  • Air fresheners
  • Dental floss
  • Stain-resistant fabrics (rugs or furniture)
  • Water-repellant clothing
  • Cosmetics
  • Shampoos
  • Fast-food packaging (containers and wrappers)
  • Fire-retardant foams used by the military and fire departments

In particular, two types of PFAS, which are no longer made in the United States but are still produced elsewhere, have raised significant health concerns:

  • Perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), which has been the most widely used PFAS, was commonly branded to consumers as Teflon and used to create a nonstick coating for cookware.
  • Perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) has been used in stain-resistant fabrics, fire-fighting foams and food packaging.

Because the use of PFAS has been so widespread, the compounds have made their way into drinking water and food supplies.

Do PFAS cause cancer?

Scientists still have much to learn about PFAS and how they may relate to cancer. Some research has indicated a link between some PFAS and some forms of cancer, but the results have not been conclusive.

The International Agency for Research on Cancer, part of the World Health Organization, has classified PFOA as “possibly carcinogenic to humans,” based on limited evidence.

Here’s what’s known about the connection between some PFAS and some forms of cancer, according to the National Cancer Institute:

Kidney cancer. Greater incidences of kidney cancer have been observed among workers in plants producing PFAS or individuals living near such plants, but studies are still needed to explore kidney cancer’s relationship to PFOA levels seen in the general population. Some 2023 research suggested an increased risk of renal cell carcinoma (RCC) among individuals with another widely seen PFAS, PFNA, with the risk strongest among African-American participants.

Testicular cancer. A study of PFAS blood levels among active-duty Air Force service members, who may have been exposed to firefighting foams used at airports and military installations, found that elevated levels of PFOS were associated with a higher risk of developing testicular cancer in highly exposed populations.

Breast cancer. National Institute of Health (NIH) investigators using blood serum information from a study of postmenopausal breast cancer women found a positive association between concentrated PFOS blood levels and hormone receptor-positive tumors, and between concentrated PFOA levels and hormone receptor-negative tumors.

Prostate cancer. An NIH investigation studying PFAS concentrations in blood and a connection to aggressive prostate cancer found no association between increased PFAS levels and cancer risk in the study population, but it didn’t rule out an association with lower PFAS levels and non-aggressive forms of the cancer.

The NIH also identified studies being developed to look at possible PFAS associations with ovarian and endometrial cancer, non-Hodgkin lymphoma, thyroid cancer and childhood leukemia.

“Many scientific articles have been published about PFAS exposure and health effects,” a report by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry said. “While it is difficult to show that substances directly cause health conditions in humans, scientific studies have shown that exposure to some PFAS in the environment may be linked to harmful health effects in humans and animals. More research is needed to better understand the health effects of PFAS exposure.”

How to avoid forever chemicals

While harm from PFAS has not been shown conclusively, some individuals may want to do what they can to avoid the chemicals. Here are some ways to do that:

  • Don’t use pans with nonstick coatings for cooking. Choose ceramic, glass, stainless-steel or cast-iron instead. If you’re using a nonstick pan, cook at lower temperatures and don’t preheat the pan; don’t use metal utensils when cooking or abrasive steel-wool when cleaning nonstick pans, because they scrape the coating and may release PFAS. (Some cookware may have PFOA-free labels, but still have a different PFAS coating on them.)
  • Use a reverse-osmosis filter to reduce PFAS levels in tap water.
  • Don’t reheat foods that are wrapped in grease-resistant packaging. Transfer packaged foods into glass or metal containers first. Look for packaging that’s BPI (Biodegradable Products Institute) certified to not contain PFAS.
  • Make popcorn the old-fashioned way, on a stovetop, rather than using the popcorn in PFAS-treated microwaveable bags.
  • Don’t use PFAS-coated dental floss or cosmetics or shampoos containing PFAS. Check online to see which brands to buy.
  • Avoid buying furniture, rugs and bedding labeled water- or stain-repellant, since most of these treatments may contain PFAS. Check manufacturers’ information to see whether a product is PFAS-free, as some manufacturers have eliminated these chemicals from their items.
  • Check labels to make sure the products you’re buying, such as cosmetics or household items, don’t have PTFE or “fluoro” as an ingredient.
  • Look for non-PFAS clothing.
  • Dust with a wet cloth to avoid spreading dust that may contain PFAS, and use a pleated, mechanical (HEPA) air filter while vacuuming.

If you’re interested in getting screened for cancer or if you’ve been diagnosed with cancer and want a second opinion, call us or chat online with a member of our team.