Here’s what you need to know about ‘forever chemicals,’ or PFAS, in your food

PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, have been found in foods, drinking water, household products, and more since the 1940s. Yet mystery still surrounds how PFAS migrate into consumables, which makes it challenging to avoid these potentially harmful “forever chemicals.” On Wednesday, a study published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives shed new light on where and how most people consume PFAS.

Diet is one of the major contributors of PFAS exposure, says Holly Davies, PhD, a senior toxicologist at the Washington State Department of Health, according to Consumer Reports. Some researchers believe that the chemicals migrate from food packages to the food itself. The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) names popcorn bags, nonstick cookware, paint, and even cosmetics as potential culprits.

Researchers have found that meals sourced from fast food chains and pizza restaurants tend to be served with higher levels of “forever chemicals” than home-cooked meals. Since PFAS have the ability to accumulate in both the body and the environment, it’s worth considering what that really means for our health.

Graham Peaslee, PhD, is a professor of experimental nuclear physics at the University of Notre Dame who has has studied the presence of PFAS in various items, including dental floss and fast food wrappers. “PFAS in general have not been extensively studied, but certain types of PFAS—particularly PFOA and PFOS—have been,” Dr. Peaslee tells Well+Good. “The health effects from those two in particular are very worrisome. Their concentrations in human blood are directly correlated with hypertension, pregnancy-induced hypertension, thyroid disease, ulcerative colitis, and two types of cancers: testicular and kidney.”

PFOA and PFOS are “immunotoxins,” artificial proteins that attack and compromise your immune system, says Dr. Peaslee. “This means that depending on what else you are exposed to, or what hereditary co-factors you have, opportunistic diseases—including other cancers—are more likely to occur.”

Everyone is regularly exposed to PFAS, and there’s no known “safe” level. But higher levels in your body are associated with health issues, so it’s best to limit exposure when possible, says Dr. Peaslee. “You really don’t want to have these chemicals in your blood, and the easiest way to get them in your blood is to eat or drink them,” he says. “I am not going to be going out [to eat] less, personally, but the idea that food packaging may contain these chemicals means I am going to wash my hands after I eat—as well as before.”

Apart from monitoring your own behavior when you go out to eat, Dr. Peaslee suggests using your power as a consumer to effect change in the food industry. Microwave popcorn in Denmark has been PFAS-free since 2014, he notes. “We should all stop using microwave popcorn until they switch to the PFAS -free packaging,” he says. “That is what individuals can do, and the market will respond.”

Speaking of acronyms causing debate in the wellness world, here’s the verdict on how GMOs affect your health. And how they’re being used to fight climate change