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PFAS and PFOS: The Forever Chemicals That Could Harm Your Reproductive Health

Jessica Rogalski
January 28, 2024

PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances) and PFOS (perfluorooctane sulfonate) are a group of manufactured chemicals that have gained significant attention during the 1990s due to their potential impact on reproductive health. Various consumer products use these chemicals, including non-stick cookware, waterproof clothing, food packaging, and firefighting foams. While they are known for their durability and resistance to heat, water, and oil, there are concerns about their long-lasting effects on human health. In this article, we will delve into the world of PFAS and PFOS, exploring their uses, health risks, and, specifically, how they can affect fertility in both men and women.

Key Takeaways

  • PFAS and PFOS are chemicals commonly found in consumer products, soil, air, tap water, and drinking water.
  • Exposure to PFAS and PFOS can lead to fertility issues in both men and women.
  • PFAS and PFOS can also impact pregnancy and child development.
  • It is difficult altogether to avoid exposure to PFAS and PFOS in modern society.
  • Reducing exposure includes using water filters and avoiding products with PFAS and PFOS.

Understanding PFAS and PFOS: What Are They?

PFAS stands for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances. These chemicals contain strong carbon-fluorine bonds, making them highly resistant to environmental degradation. PFOS stands for perfluorooctanesulfonic acid. It is a synthetic chemical compound that belongs to a group of chemicals known as PFAS. Invented by DuPont and first utilized by The 3M Company, PFOS has been added to industrial applications since the 1950s. It began with everyday products such as stain-resistant fabrics, carpet treatments, and fire-retardant foams.

The Widespread Use of PFAS and PFOS in Consumer Products

The use of PFAS and PFOS is pervasive in our daily lives. Due to their unique properties, they're in an extensive range of consumer products. Non-stick cookware is one example where these chemicals reside, creating a surface that repels food and prevents sticking. Waterproof clothing also contains PFAS and PFOS to provide resistance against water and stains. Additionally, food packaging materials such as microwave popcorn bags and fast-food wrappers often contain these chemicals to prevent grease from seeping through.

The Health Risks Associated with PFAS and PFOS Exposure

Health RiskDescription
CancerExposure to PFAS and PFOS can increase the risk of kidney, testicular, and thyroid cancer.
Immune System DysfunctionExposure to PFAS and PFOS can compromise the immune system, rendering individuals more vulnerable to infections and illnesses.
Developmental IssuesExposure to PFAS and PFOS during pregnancy can lead to developmental issues in infants, including low birth weight and delayed development.
Liver DamageExposure to PFAS and PFOS can cause liver damage and an elevated risk of liver disease.
Hormonal and Reproductive IssuesPFAS can interfere with the normal functioning of hormones in the body, potentially leading to disruptions in the endocrine system. This can result in reproductive problems, thyroid dysfunction, and other hormonal imbalances.
Kidney DiseaseSome research suggests long-term exposure to PFAS may be associated with kidney damage and an increased risk of kidney disease.
Elevated Cholestrol LevelsStudies have found a positive association between PFAS exposure and increased levels of cholesterol in the blood, which can contribute to cardiovascular diseases.

Exposure to PFAS and PFOS causes a range of health risks. These chemicals accumulate in the body over time, leading to potential long-term effects. They can disrupt hormone levels, affect immune function, and increase the risk of certain cancers. Additionally, these chemicals are associated with liver damage, kidney disease, and developmental issues in children.

problems with pfas by heal
Infographics created by The International Federation of Gynecology and Obstetrics (FIGO), the Health and Environment Alliance (HEAL), and the University of California in San Francisco (UCSF). Click here to learn more about their movement in protecting reproductive health, fertility, and human development.

How PFAS and PFOS Affect Reproductive Health and Fertility in Men and Women

The impact of PFAS and PFOS on fertility is a growing concern. Research has shown that exposure to these chemicals can have adverse consequences on both male and female reproductive systems. In men, studies have found a correlation between high levels of PFAS and PFOS in the blood and decreased sperm quality, including reduced sperm count, motility, and morphology. In women, exposure to these chemicals can cause menstrual irregularities, diminished ovarian reserve, and an increased risk of infertility.

The Connection Between PFAS and PFOS Exposure and Infertility

The connection between PFAS and PFOS exposure and infertility lies in their ability to disrupt hormone levels and reproductive function. These chemicals can disrupt the production and regulation of hormones, including estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone, which are important in maintaining normal reproductive functions. By disrupting these hormonal pathways, PFAS and PFOS can impair ovulation, sperm production, fertilization, implantation, and overall reproductive success.

The Impact of PFAS and PFOS on Pregnancy and Child Development

Pregnant women exposed to PFAS and PFOS may experience adverse outcomes for both themselves and their developing fetus. Research has indicated that women with elevated levels of these chemicals in their bloodstream are at a heightened risk for pregnancy complications, including preeclampsia, gestational diabetes, low birth weight, and preterm birth. Furthermore, exposure to PFAS and PFOS can cause developmental issues in children, including delayed growth, reduced immune function, and neurobehavioral problems.

The Difficulty of Avoiding PFAS and PFOS Exposure in Modern Society

Due to their extensive usage and long-lasting presence in the environment, avoiding exposure to PFAS and PFOS is challenging. These chemicals can enter our bodies through various routes, including ingestion, inhalation, and dermal absorption. They are in everyday products such as food, water, personal care items, and household goods. Additionally, PFAS and PFOS can contaminate the air, soil, and water sources, further increasing the risk of exposure. Studies have verified that PFAS in rainwater samples from various locations worldwide exceed regulatory limits.

PFAS and PFOS in Tap Water

One significant source of PFAS and PFOS exposure is tap water. These chemicals can contaminate water supplies through industrial discharges, firefighting foam runoff, and using contaminated water sources for drinking. The prevalence of PFAS and PFOS in tap water across the United States is a significant cause for concern. A study executed by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) found that these chemicals were detected in the drinking water of over 30 states, affecting millions of people.

PFAS and PFOS in Bottled Water

While many people turn to bottled water as an alternative to tap water, this may not guarantee safety from PFAS and PFOS exposure. Bottled water can also acquire these chemicals due to various factors, such as the source of the water, the manufacturing process, or the packaging materials used. A study conducted by the EWG found that several popular bottled water brands contained detectable levels of PFAS and PFOS.

The Role of Corporations and Governments in Addressing PFAS and PFOS Contamination

Addressing the issue of PFAS and PFOS contamination requires collective action from both corporations and governments. Corporations are responsible for prioritizing the use of safer alternatives and disclosing the presence of these chemicals in their products. Governments play a critical role in setting regulations and standards for using and disposing of PFAS and PFOS. Some countries have already taken steps to ban or restrict the use of these chemicals, while others are still developing regulations to minimize exposure. Countries that prohibit the production, use, importation, and marketing of PFAS and PFOS are the European Union, Australia, New Zealand, and Norway.

Strategies for Reducing Your Exposure to PFAS and PFOS

While it may be challenging to avoid exposure to PFAS and PFOS, there are steps individuals can take to reduce their exposure.

  1. Avoid products containing PFAS/PFOS: Look for non-stick cookware, food packaging, and stain-resistant products labeled PFAS-free or PFOA-free.
  2. Filter your drinking and tap water: Use a water filtration system to remove PFAS/PFOS, such as reverse osmosis systems, to filter your drinking water. Review the product specifications to ensure it is effective against these chemicals. You can also add a whole-home water filtration system to remove PFAS/PFOS and other heavy metals. Filtering all tap water in your home further ensures safety from these chemicals through daily activities, such as hand washing, cooking, bathing, laundry, and washing dishes.
  3. Limit consumption of contaminated foods: Certain foods, mainly fish and shellfish from contaminated water sources, may contain higher levels of PFAS/PFOS. Stay informed about local advisories and limit consumption accordingly.
  4. Choose safer personal care products: Read labels and avoid cosmetics, skincare products, and cleaning agents that contain ingredients like fluoro or perfluoro.
  5. Be cautious with stain-resistant fabrics: Avoid purchasing clothing, carpets, or furniture treated with stain-resistant coatings that may contain PFAS/PFOS.
  6. Properly dispose of products containing PFAS/PFOS: When discarding items like non-stick cookware or stain-resistant products, follow local guidelines for hazardous waste disposal to prevent environmental contamination.

Review FIGO, HEAL, UCSF, and NRDC's fact sheet to learn more about PFAS and PFOS and how they're working together to raise awareness.

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