Easy, Eco-Friendly Finds for Everyone. Shop Brightly!

What Are PFAS? Everything You Need to Know About the 'Forever Chemicals'

PFAS are in everything, from packaging to our water supply to our bloodstreams. But what are PFAS, and how do they affect our planet?

what are pfas
Written by
Jane Marsh
Nobody wants to ingest toxic chemicals—or be anywhere near them, really. This applies to the packaging that houses our food and beauty products, which consumers generally trust to be healthy as well as durable.
Per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (aka PFAS,
man-made, long-lasting chemicals
used for everything from non-stick pans to water-repellant clothing) have dominated the packaging industry for much of the last century, so much so that their use is almost a default.
Unfortunately, that overreliance comes with drawbacks for both humans and the environment, the details of which the EPA is
still working to
understand in full.

What Are PFAS in Packaging?

what are pfas environmental impact
Companies use PFAS in packaging because it makes sense—they’re highly resistant to liquids and oils, making them a sturdy option for countless types of food and product. PFAS can be found in everything from
to-go containers
to supermarket fruit packaging.
Their ubiquity makes it all the easier for the toxic additives to seep into the water supply, affecting animal and aquatic life.
Trophic transfer does the rest
of the work, and these chemicals make their way into human food, the air, animals, our bloodstream, and more.
Studies analyzing the
effects of PFAS on the body
are alarming and include signs of hormone irregularity, high cholesterol, and damage to the immune system. And while the presence is a clear problem, detection is, too. Water treatment facilities struggle to treat water contaminated with PFAS that has leaked or seeped. As PFAS break down, they release ever more harmful chemicals into the environment, and they are
free to spread through the soil
, air, and water.
Mike Schade, the director of
Toxic-Free Future
, doesn't believe that “shopping a way out of this problem”—aka the direction of your dollar—is a possibility. Customers cannot trust retailers without transparency and discovering any deception can lead to a public health crisis on top of an environmental outrage. Next, people begin to dismiss state and federal authorities on food and packaging safety, fostering a toxic (and ultimately unproductive) relationship within the market.

Silicone Food Storage Bowls

Shop All Food & Kitchen

Why Are Companies Going PFAS-Free?

what are pfas
Alternatives to PFAS-laden materials exist for equally, if not more effective, food packaging—think
, palm leaves, and molded fibers. Still, making a mass cultural shift is challenging, as companies are reluctant to adopt a new and more expensive packaging process sans systemic pressure. 
In addition to the adverse effects on human health, companies also carry the burden of environmental damage caused by PFAS. The chemical components that comprise PFAS
break down very slowly
—some can take up to
1,000 years to degrade
—and their persistent presence has proven physically harmful to countless species, including sea otters and
polar bears
, resulting in neurological damage, hormone imbalance, reproductive issues, and more.
Most companies are accustomed to antiquated methods that instances like water contaminated with burger wrappers are commonplace. This unsettling reality has caused organizations like Toxic-Free Future to create resources for public use on sustainable and healthy alternatives.
"We have assembled
a list of alternatives
that restaurants can purchase as well as
guides for grocery stores
and quick-service restaurants that want to remove all PFAS from their packaging," says Schade. "Reusable food service ware is also widely available and preferable to single-use items.”
The good news? In lieu of government action,
32 major retailers have committed to removing
PFAS packaging, adding up to more than 150,000 stores.
Individuals advocating for PFAS bans or other legislation are looking to governing bodies to enact change on a broader scale, bettering communication with suppliers and food companies to foster a shift in perspective. A recent study highlighted the simplicity of transitioning from PFAS:
67% of packaging
from tested fast-food chains was PFAS-free, that packaging served alongside products that still tested well above the screening level for fluorine.
In short? It seems that avoiding the switch is a choice of convenience and complacency rather than access or understanding.

The Takeaway?

what are pfas environmental impact
When it comes to PFAS, both the EPA and FDA are still grappling with a wealth of unknowns, including which foods are more susceptible to PFAS contamination, how often people are actually exposed to PFAS, and more.
The EPA notes a
need for better detection methods
for field analysis. However, in reality, the
actions taken
by these federal bodies are mostly outpaced by the faster-moving progress of states and retailers—at least for the moment.

Stasher Bag Bundle

Shop All Food & Kitchen
Still, progress is occurring. In 2018, Washington
passed legislation
to limit the use of PFAS in packaging, inspiring 11 other states to follow suit including California, Colorado, Connecticut, Hawaii, Maryland, Maine, Minnesota, New York, Rhode Island, and Vermont.
While the current information isn't quite comprehensive enough to make bold claims—particularly since analyzing PFAS depends on demographics, regions, consumer behaviors, and many other factors, as well as up-leveled technology—community and state efforts will compound, amounting to benchmarks and standards issued by the federal government to guide corporations on switching from PFAS.
In the meantime, consumer voices are the greatest asset for influencing policymakers to normalize PFAS-free packaging—and a safer and more environmentally friendly future.