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Health

The 'forever chemicals' toxic to your health - and how to avoid them

From your popcorn bag to your waterproof jacket, forever chemicals are all around us. We're finally starting to understand what they are doing to our health - and how to get rid of them

By Graham Lawton

8 May 2024

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In 1938, chemist Roy J. Plunkett stumbled across a substance that would change the world forever. He was experimenting with refrigerant gases when he noticed that one compound had transformed into a white, waxy solid. It had extraordinary properties, being impervious to heat and chemical degradation and also extremely slippery.

Today, we know this chemical as Teflon, and produce more than 200,000 tonnes of the stuff every year. It is used in everything from non-stick frying pans to medical catheters. Though undoubtedly useful, Teflon was also the first of a group called perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), better known as forever chemicals.

Almost as soon as Teflon was invented, concerns were raised about its potential impacts on the environment and our bodies (it is worth noting, though, that these days, using non-stick cookware is probably safe as the pans are heat-treated and don’t release any nasties unless they are left on a high heat for a long time). Today, the world is finally getting to grips with just how dangerous forever chemicals can be to our health – and dealing with the problem head on. In January, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) added nine forever chemicals to its list of hazardous constituents. And last month, the US imposed its first ever limits on levels of PFAS in drinking water, in a belated bid to reduce exposure to these ubiquitous chemicals. But what risks do they actually pose and what should we be doing to remove them from our lives? Researchers face a huge…

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