The chemicals of concern are PFAS, which stands for “per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances.” They are used in a great variety of consumer products: food packaging, stain- and water-repellent fabrics, nonstick cookware, polishes, waxes, paints and cleaning products, as well as pizza boxes (to prevent the oil from seeping through), fast-food wrappers, cosmetics, electronics, furniture, sneakers, carpets, microwave popcorn bags and many other products. They’re also used in manufacturing processes and get into our water supplies from industrial contamination. PFAS are known as “forever chemicals” because they don’t break down in water, air or our bodies.
A study from Duke University published in September, 2018 looked at whether or not PFAS contribute to kidney disease. The researchers concluded that they can, in fact, cause kidney damage and noted that children are at greater risk than adults.
Every day, the kidneys process about 200 quarts of blood to filter out about two quarts of metabolic wastes.
Duke study leader, John Stanifer, M.D., MSc, notes that they are “very sensitive organs, particularly when it comes to environmental toxins that can get in our bloodstream.” Because so many people are now exposed to PFAS, “it is critical to understand if and how these chemicals may be contributing to kidney disease,” he added.
There’s little doubt that PFAS can endanger health. Earlier animal studies have shown that some of them harm the liver, disrupt the immune and endocrine systems, and have adverse neurobehavioral effects. In addition, a growing body of epidemiological evidence suggests that PFAS may play a role in the development of testicular and kidney cancers, liver malfunction, hypothyroidism, high cholesterol, ulcerative colitis, lower birth weight and size, obesity, reduced hormone levels and delayed puberty.
Clearly, we should try to avoid PFAS whenever possible. Here’s some advice from the Natural Resources Defense Council on steps you can take:
- Ask manufacturers whether their products contain PFAS. You’re not likely to see them listed on labels.
- Don’t use nonstick cookware, Gore-Tex clothing, or personal care products with “PTFE” or “fluoro” ingredients, or textiles made with the original (pre-2000) formulation of Scotchgard.
- If you don’t need something truly “waterproof,” look for coats, hats, boots, and tents labeled “water resistant,” which are less likely to be treated with PFAS.
- Minimize children’s PFAS exposure by avoiding carpets and upholstery treated to be stain or water resistant.
- Replace ordinary nonstick cookware with stainless steel, cast-iron, glass, or ceramic alternatives.
- Avoid ordering or heating up food wrapped in grease-resistant paper.
- Make popcorn on the stovetop instead of in PFAS-treated microwave bags.
Andrew Weil, M.D.
John Stanifer et al, “Perfluorinated Chemicals as Emerging Environmental Threats to Kidney Health: A Scoping Review,” Clinical Journal of the American Society of Nephrology, September 13, 2018. DOI: doi.org/10.2215/CJN.04670418