What are forever chemicals – PFAS?

What are forever chemicals - PFAS?

Referred to as “forever chemicals”, PFAS is a general term for thousands of chemical compounds that can withstand high temperatures, light, and various chemical reactions. Although they accumulate in the human body and cause health concerns, they have changed our lives for the better in some ways and exist in every corner of the world. The article will explain what forever chemicals are and how these chemical substances change our lives, affect our health, and what policies have been devised worldwide to control them.

What are forever chemicals?

Have you heard of “forever chemicals” or PFAS? The full name of PFAS is per- or polyfluoroalkyl substances, which covers thousands of compounds containing carbon-fluorine bonds. These compounds are extremely stable, capable of withstanding high temperatures, light, chemical reactions, microbial effects, and vertebrate metabolism without degradation. They remain in the natural environment and the human body for a long time. According to the report by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (US EPA), the half-life of several common PFAS such as PFOA, PFOS, and PFHxS in the human body are 3.8 years, 5.4 years, and 8.5 years respectively. It may take decades to metabolize them, hence the term “forever chemicals”.

After more than half a century of use, these forever chemicals are ubiquitous in our environment. Between 1970 and 2002 alone, it is estimated that as many as 100,000 tons of PFAS have been produced. Although 3M, a major US manufacturer of PFAS, stopped producing PFOS chemicals in 2003, and Dupont, renowned manufacturer of the Teflon brand of non-stick coating, using PFOA, also stopped using PFOA in 2013, because of the use of other types of forever chemicals and their resistance to decomposition, PFAS are detected in air, water, soil, and ice samples collected globally, including in the Arctic Archipelago. Laboratory tests have proven that some types of forever chemicals are harmful to lab rats, rabbits, wild chickens, fish, and nematodes. They have been shown to cause particular harm to reproductive systems.

How are PFAS changing our lives?

PFAS have many unique qualities, besides bolstering the performance of existing materials, they are also an essential ingredient for numerous chemical agents. PFAS are mainly used in six following products that have changed our lives:

Firefighting foam

After the firefighting foam is sprayed it expands quickly, enveloping the fire and cutting off the oxygen supply to combustibles, extinguishing the flame by depriving it of oxygen. PFAS are used as the surfactant in firefighting foams to increase their fluidity, making them an essential product for extinguishing gasoline/diesel, kerosene, and aviation kerosene-related fires. Even in the modern age, when eliminating PFAS is a main concern, certain locations such as military facilities and airports are still equipped with firefighting foams containing PFAS, due to its greater effectiveness.


Apart from the most well-known Teflon non-stick pan coating, electric cookers, baking trays, and other cookware that comes in direct contact with food may also contain PFAS to enhance the convenience of removing food from them and cleaning them afterward, saving us valuable time in the kitchen.

Food packaging and tableware

In recent years, people have gained growing awareness of the negative impact of plastics on the environment and climate change, so have begun consciously reducing plastics. In particular, disposable food packaging and tableware have widely been replaced by paper alternatives due to cost and functionality. However, this paper material is not as resistant to water and oil in food, thus a coating is required to ensure that the packaging and tableware do not soften and disintegrate in use. PFAS coatings offer much better performance than wax, thus it is used extensively.


How do cosmetics stay on our faces for so long without coming off due to sweat, tears, or exposure to sunlight? The key lies with PFAS, an important ingredient that often appears in cosmetics that are prone to body fluid contact such as mascaras, eye shadows, and lipsticks, so that we don’t have to carry cosmetics with us to freshen up all the time.

Medical equipment

High-precision medical equipment uses PFAS as insulators to maintain the instrument’s effectiveness. For example, MRIs or stents and catheters that are embedded into the human body use PFAS to reduce allergic or rejection reactions and facilitate the recuperation process.

Consumer electronics

PFAS are used as an auxiliary chemical during the semiconductor etching process, thus our consumer electronics and home appliances such as smartphone screens, automotive computers, or refrigerators all involve the use of PFAS. It will take years to find and introduce alternative products, resulting in possible setbacks to technological development.

Forever chemicals: How do PFAS affect us?

We are most likely to be exposed to PFAS through drinking water, eating food, and using products that contain forever chemicals. PFAS are omnipresent in water, so unless our drinking water is filtered with RO or activated carbon, they will constantly accumulate in our bodies, increasing in concentration. PFAS in food mainly originate from cookware or food packaging containers containing forever chemicals, which allow PFAS to spread to our food and be ingested by us. Products containing PFAS are everywhere, and they enter our bodies through direct skin contact or atmospheric diffusion.

How will accumulation of PFAS in our bodies affect us? At present, the scientific community still cannot provide us with a definitive answer, but according to animal testing and monitoring long-term health conditions of people who have been affected by PFAS contamination, we understand that the potential hazards of PFAS on human health include the following: affecting pregnant women’s placenta and thereby causing obesity and growth issues in newborns; interfering with the endocrine system, particularly the thyroid gland, resulting in metabolic disorders, obesity, and diabetes; disrupting the nervous system and causing chronic neurological diseases; causing abnormalities in the reproductive and metabolic systems, and ultimately inducing cancer.

Are PFAS already a part of our lives?

According to Marco Bonato, Francesca Corrà, Marta Bellio, Laura Guidolin, Laura Tallandini, Paola Irato and Gianfranco Santovito. 2020. PFAS Environmental Pollution and Antioxidant Responses: An Overview of the Impact on Human Field. J. Environ. Res. Public Health 2020, 17(21), human beings have been producing PFAS since the 1940s, meaning that the Earth has been polluted by forever chemicals since then. Now, PFAS are detected in waters, flora, and fauna in every region on the planet including remote areas such as the Arctic and Antarctica. PFAS are very mobile in water because they combine with water molecules and spread through the water cycle. Currently, they cannot be removed via regular water purification methods as used in sewage treatment plants.

Through the C8 Health Project team’s research on residents near 3M factories and subsequent studies, PFAS are detected in the serum of 99% of the US population. Although the concentration of long-chain PFAS has exhibited a declining trend after 2000, short-chain PFAS concentration has increased, and a similar outcome has emerged in studies conducted in many other countries including Sweden, Germany, Norway, Denmark, Australia, Japan, South Korea, and China.

Policies on PFAS in various countries around the world

Currently, only richer countries are monitoring and controlling PFAS, while many others still lack relevant regulations. The following five countries have implemented PFAS control measures:


The United States Environmental Protection Agency (US EPA) has included long-chain PFAS in the Significant New Uses Rule (SNUR), meaning that all uses of PFAS must be notified to the US EPA in advance for review. Due to the slower legislative process at the federal level, many state governments have between 2022 and 2024 promulgated laws restricting the use of PFAS, including New York State, California, Washington State, Vermont, Connecticut, Colorado, Maryland, Minnesota, and Hawaii have all formulated regulations to ban the use of PFAS in specific areas including food packaging.


The EU has included numerous types of PFAS in the REACH Substances of very high concern (SVHC), and they are controlled by the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants, Move PFOS out of REACH in 2009, and include them in the more rigorous POPs regulatory restrictions. At present, five EU countries including Germany, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, and Netherlands are putting forward their latest proposals, hoping to progressively ban the use of all types of PFAS in the future.


Japan has enacted robust legislation in accordance with the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants. In 2010, the country designated PFOS as class 1 specified chemical substances under the Chemical Substance Control Law, and they are considered to be persistent, highly cumulative, and have long-term or chronic toxicity on apex predators such as humans. In 2021, PFOA were also designated as a class 1 specific chemical substance, and the manufacture and import of PFOA is prohibited. On April 1, 2020, Japan’s Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare set a provisional target value of 50 ng/L for PFAS concentration in water.


The Canadian Environmental Protection Act included PFAS in the list of toxic substances in 1999, which means there are controls on the research, development, production, use, storage, and disposal of PFAS. Additionally, the manufacture, sale, use, and import of all salt and precursor products including PFOS, PFOA, and LC-PFCA are banned, except for specific products such as electric cables and components, which have given several years exemption. In the future, new PFAS-related assessment reports will continue to be issued in a bid to control these substances.


Taiwan has listed PFOA, PFOS, LPOS and POSF as controlled chemical substances that are banned except for in specific fields such as semiconductors, electric cables, and camera films. However, the country has not yet stipulated any regulations regarding PFAS and PFAS concentrations in water.

How do we avoid exposure to forever chemicals?

Forever chemicals are ubiquitous in our bodies and the environment, they are even found in our blood vessels. Although we are uncertain how high a level of PFAS concentration will harm the human body, renouvo believes that we should take the issue seriously. After all, forever chemicals will remain in the human body for many years. This is why renouvo feels it is important to provides forever chemical- and plastic-free food packaging, to replace plastic and other plant fibers such as paper that may contain PFAS and thereby minimize the possibility of us being exposed to forever chemicals in food.