Breaking News
More () »

How 'forever chemicals' impact your health: HealthLink

PFAS are present in the environment as well as your body. The health impacts are less clear.

SEATTLE — A study from the U.S. Geological Survey released this month, reported an estimated 45% of U.S. tap water contains at least one type of PFAS.

Short for polyfluoroalkyl substances, they are commonly referred to as "forever chemicals" because they take a long time to break down in the environment.

What PFAS presence does to the human body, however, is still being researched.

PFAS are a set of synthetic chemicals that can be found in certain stain and water-resistant products, certain non-stick cookware, and certain food packaging. It's also a component in a type of firefighting foam that is now banned in Washington. It can even be present in tap water.

"We are finding elevated levels in multiple areas, especially those close to industry, firefighting operations, airports," said Dr. Bonnie Ronish.

Ronish is a pulmonologist and Clinical Director of the UW Medicine Occupational and Environmental Medicine Clinic at Harborview.

She said PFAS can take a long time to leave the body if they're consumed but they're not technically "forever."

"We do know your body will take care of it on its own over time, so we know PFAS decreases in the bloodstream as time goes on," Ronish said.

Exactly how much time is unknown, but it's still a health concern. Ronish said there are no telltale signs of PFAS exposure but pointed to possible, higher risk for certain conditions, such as higher cholesterol levels, a decreased response to vaccines among children, high blood pressure among pregnant women, testicular and kidney cancer, and thyroid disease.

"You can tell that all of these things are very common in the general population so it's very difficult to say PFAS caused this, but we know that there's an increased risk beyond what we would expect in the general population," Ronish said.

Further complicating things, the Centers for Disease Control said the body can get rid of PFAS naturally, mostly through urination over time, but it cannot be directly removed or flushed out.

"We can't take it out of the body. We can't chelate it, we can't get you to pee it out, we can't do anything about it, right? All we can do is reduce the exposure," Ronish said.

So that leaves us with prevention.

The WA Department of Ecology monitors PFAS contamination in the environment. Guidance for cleanup and PFAS investigation was last updated in June this year.

Ronish recommends people be aware of which areas might have higher PFAS levels but said the public should not panic, as impacts are population-oriented, vs. individual.

"We want to fix it, we want to change it, we want to help people avoid it, but this is not something that should not be causing panic," Ronish said.

There is a blood test to detect PFAS levels in the body, but it is not a routine test. The CDC said PFAS blood testing can be limiting, as it will be unclear if the results are definitively linked to possible health effects.

WATCH: KING 5's HealthLink playlist on YouTube

Before You Leave, Check This Out