Can You Limit Your Exposure to PFAS?

Scott, a white man with a shaved head and a brown beard, wears a blue button-down shirt and navy jacket.By Scott M. Werley 

If you’ve been following the emergence of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) over the past six years, one may think that it would be impossible to limit your exposure to PFAS as we’ve learned about its ubiquitous nature in the environment, its inability to break down and tendency to bioaccumulate, as well as its presence in many everyday consumer products.

As an industry, we’ve primarily focused on drinking-water quality as a primary route of exposure. However, ongoing research relating to our nation’s game and fish tissue and biosolid application now has us questioning the safety of our food supply. Are these compounds being taken up by the root systems of plants and transferred to the cattle being fed those plants, or are they even being taken up by the plants and vegetables we consume directly? A few other potential PFAS exposure routes include food packaging, cosmetics, the clothes we wear and the products that we launder our clothes with.

As a consultant with decades of experience, I understand the importance of attempting to minimize your exposure to chemicals that you may be coming into contact within your day-to-day life. Minimization is a best practice preached to me since my time spent as an entry-level environmental scientist at a geologic firm that specialized in remediation. Personal protective equipment (PPE) is the last line of defense and a must for those working in the field where PFAS is a potential contaminant of concern.

Many contaminants have very clear indicators—such as color or odor—to help guide assessment and remediation activities; however, PFAS does not. It is eye opening to participate in a PFAS assessment job thinking that you are just dealing with normal soil, surface water or groundwater throughout the assessment, and then getting your laboratory-analytical report back indicating that the media you were working in and sampling that day was over North Carolina Industrial/Commercial standards.

Yes, of course, the exceedances of the Industrial/Commercial standards may be due to PFAS comparison criteria currently being set so low in the parts-per-trillion range; however, I hope this helps you understand the capacity for which even a consumer can become “exposed.”

So, how can you potentially limit lifetime exposure to these forever chemicals?

  1. Filter your drinking water. Fancy reverse osmosis systems are not 100% necessary but do provide a good option to filter PFAS and other contaminants from your drinking water. Keep your water filter fresh and replace it promptly. Consider double filtering. My household’s drinking water is double filtered with two different activated-carbon water filters; one directly installed on the refrigerator and a second counter-top pitcher-style filter. Activated-carbon filters work well together and in series, just like they would in a remediation system designed to treat your site’s groundwater.
  2. Cook at home more often and minimize your visits to restaurants that provide food in to-go containers or food wrappers that are oil resistant.
  3. Toss the fabric softener. These days, I find it off-putting when I detect the smell of these types of products. Once everyone associates these strong scents that appear to never fully fade (a sign of the presence of forever chemicals) with potentially toxic chemicals, I suspect the demand for these items will decrease.
  4. Toss the cooking spray and scratched non-stick pans. Aluminum, cast iron, copper, ceramic and butter are excellent alternatives.

This is of course not an exhaustive list of exposure-reduction efforts you could undertake; however, I hope it has conveyed and reinforced the overall thought process and importance of attempting to reduce your exposure to PFAS over your lifetime.

For 22 years, Scott Werley has been establishing himself as one of the most experienced professional geologists in the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill region. Scott leads ECS’s internal PFAS team and separates himself from his peers by holding P.G. licenses in three states, is a member of the Interstate Technology Regulatory Council’s PFAS team and has obtained various licenses that diversify his skillset. Scott is a devoted family man who was there to support his sister during the 1996 Olympics and is now a diehard supporter of his daughter’s various sporting pursuits.