Forever chemicals: What are they used in and why?
3 minute read
Many of us are becoming increasingly aware of the prolific use of ‘forever chemicals' in everyday products. But why do manufacturers choose to use these harmful chemicals? And where can they be found?
'Forever chemicals' can be found in almost every UK home. You might find them in your kitchen cupboards, your bathroom, hanging up under the stairs or in your wardrobe, parked in your garage or driveway.
Credit: Annie Spratt
Credit: Sarah Brown
For a long time, harmful chemicals called PFAS or 'forever chemicals' have been widely used in manufacturing and can be found in many products we know and love. In fact, they’re used so much that they can now be found in all water on Earth.
Why are forever chemicals used in products?
‘Forever chemicals' have been used as a solution to make products and manufacturing more convenient. By adding PFAS to their products, manufacturers can make them more durable, long-lasting, heat resistant and waterproof. The properties that make them so convenient are the same reasons that they’re so harmful for the environment, with wildlife, people, and the planet ultimately paying the price.
Credit: Thomas Dutour
The persistence and resistance of these chemicals means they’re extremely hard-wearing and long-lasting – a key reason they’re used. They make products more durable, resistant, and last a lot longer, with the chemicals themselves lasting forever.
PFAS are also extremely heat resistant – they need to be exposed to temperatures over 1000°C to be broken down – so are used in flame-retardant and heat resistant products including fire-fighting foam.
What stops waterproof mascara from running in the rain, or keeps you dry under your raincoat? That’ll be PFAS. Because they’re water resistant, PFAS are used to make products waterproof – things like swimwear, clothing, sun cream, makeup and water-repellent sprays. They’re also used in some food packaging like cartons and carboard, to prevent leakages.
Stain and stick resistant
Some clothes offer ‘stain resistant’ versions, and it may be PFAS that helps give these items this resistance. A study found items made from 100% cotton contained more PFAS than synthetic materials, which already have a higher stain resistance. Other stain resistant textiles like carpets, tablecloths, bedding, and menstrual underwear have also been found to contain PFAS.
Sadly, it’s not your great cooking skills that stops food sticking to your saucepans and frying pans, it’s likely due to the non-stick coating, which is made using PFAS. The same goes for greaseproof paper and bun and muffin cases used in baking, as well as greaseproof food packaging.
What are PFAS used in?
Although PFAS can give certain properties to products, like making a raincoat waterproof or making a non-stick pan not ‘sticky’, they’re often used in products which don’t need these features to be useful or functional. There are safer alternatives to these chemicals, but too many manufacturers choose to use these harmful ‘forever chemicals' instead.
As well as the products mentioned above, PFAS are used in many items we use every day – items we aren’t aware contain them, because why would you suspect that your dental floss has harmful chemicals in it?
As you can see, it might be easier to ask, “what aren’t PFAS used in?” instead.
Luckily, some brands are becoming more aware of the harmful impact that these chemicals are having, and have begun to produce PFAS-free products, or are beginning to phase them out of their manufacturing processes.
For a list of brands and products which offer PFAS-free alternatives, check out www.pfasfree.org.uk.