They’re in pans, fruit, dust – and even tap water. But can I eradicate toxic forever chemicals from my home? | Health & wellbeing

I’m cooking a tomato sauce in a pan I’ve had for a few years when it bubbles and splatters on to the kitchen surface. I spray some cleaner from a bottle, dampen a cloth with tap water to wipe it up, and then chop some vegetables on the same bit of counter. All very familiar – only this time, I’m conscious of a hidden ingredient. At every step of this process, invisible so-called “forever chemicals” have potentially been leaching into my food and, soon, my body – from the battered nonstick surface of the pan, the cleaning product and even the tap water.

I only know this because I am about to embark on an experiment to remove forever chemicals from my life. Trouble is, they are everywhere. Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are used in food packaging, toiletries, nonstick cookware, carpets and waterproof clothing. There are thousands of them, and they have been found in an almost comical range of products: strawberries, cucumbers, greaseproof paper, disposable coffee cups, food wrap, sandwich bags … The nickname forever chemicals comes from their persistence – they do not easily degrade. “The PFAS used in our everyday products leak into our environment during production, use and disposal, and now contaminate our blood, water, air and food,” says Natasha Kitching, project officer at the environmental charity Fidra.

In the past, I’ve had a tendency to ignore stories about forever chemicals, mentally filing them away as part of a long history of scare journalism about carcinogens lurking everywhere. But when it comes to PFAS, there is compelling evidence that we should pay attention.

There are two key reasons. The first is environmental: PFAS have been found in Arctic ice and in the blood of polar bears. The second is the impact on human health. High levels of exposure to certain PFAS has been linked to birth defects, liver damage, reduced immunity and cancer. These particular chemicals were banned, but only a small number of PFAS have actually been tested, and new varieties are created all the time. “Generally, there’s a consensus that levels need to be high enough to be able to cause those impacts,” says Kitching. “But these chemicals are highly persistent and bioaccumulate within the body, so every ‘little bit’ of PFAS that enters the body builds up over time. It also takes years for PFAS to be fully eliminated out of the body.” (They are mostly filtered by the kidneys, meaning they leave the body slowly through urine, although PFAS also come out in menstrual blood.)

This seems to me a good argument for trying to reduce exposure. I have a two-year-old daughter, and any PFAS entering her body will stay there for the foreseeable future. The chemicals have been proven to affect the endocrine system – which in a child is still developing – and the efficacy of vaccines. I tell Kitching about my plan to eliminate forever chemicals from my house. “That’s going to be a real challenge,” she says with a sympathetic smile. “There are PFAS in dust, in the TV, and in food.”

Luckily, there are some obvious places to start. “One of their main uses in consumer products is to make things water-resistant, grease-resistant, stain-proof: so that’s clothing, furniture, nonstick pans,” says Eleanor Hawke, a campaigner at the Chem Trust, a charity working to reduce the impact of hazardous chemicals. “But also in cosmetics, cleaning products and a host of other things.”

I scan my three-bedroom maisonette for PFAS. We have wooden floors, so I’m in the clear on carpets. Sofas and mattresses are another source, but mine – bought several years ago – are not labelled one way or another. As a rule of thumb, if furniture is labelled “stain-resistant” it’s high risk, but it’s usually easiest to look for a declaration that products are PFAS-free; Ikea has said this of its textiles since 2016. There’s not much I can do about PFAS in electronic items like my laptop, TV and phone, nor about the fact that they’re in household dust and almost certainly my bloodstream. But I set myself a challenge to find “safe” replacements for as many household items as possible, one room at a time.

The kitchen

Nonstick cookware is one of the most common sources of forever chemicals. Hawke tells me to watch out for misleading labels: you want a label that says “PFAS-free”. If a product is instead labelled PFOA-free or PFC-free, as my Ikea nonstick pans are, that refers only to the tiny number of forever chemicals that are globally banned. It doesn’t cover the thousands of others. My pans are battered, with scratches and dents on the surface, which is bad. “Once something is worn down, more chemicals come off it,” says Kitching.

I search for PFAS-free cookware, and find GreenPan and GreenLife (both owned by the same Belgian company) and Ecolution (a US brand). I’m worried that alternative pans might require loads of oil to cook. But the GreenPan frying pans I go for are probably the best nonstick pans I’ve ever used. I cook an omelette without any oil at all, and everything – including a sticky sauce made with honey – washes off instantly. No scrubbing required. It’s the same with the GreenPan baking trays: I don’t need any greaseproof paper – usually laden with PFAS – to bake gingerbread men with my toddler.

Perhaps because I’m spending an inordinate amount of time Googling variations on “Does X contain PFAS?” I’m being heavily advertised Our Place’s Always Pan, another nonstick PFAS-free pan that comes in an array of gorgeous colours. There are a few negative reviews for this and other brands that say ceramic nonstick coatings can diminish after a few months – although it’s worth noting that most nonstick pans (including the PFAS-laden ones) only last a few years.

Food

In April, government testing found PFAS in a range of fruits, vegetables and spices. Strawberries were the worst – 95% of 120 samples tested contained PFAS – but grapes, cherries, tomato and cucumber were also affected. There goes my two-year-old’s diet; cutting them out would mean giving in to her dream menu of bread, rice and potato waffles. I don’t want to avoid fruit and vegetables – but finding PFAS-free alternatives isn’t straightforward. “Some pesticides contain PFAS, but there is no way for a farmer or consumer to know which do not, as their inert ingredients are hidden as ‘trade secrets’,” says Kitching. “This means that farmers can be unknowingly contaminating food with PFAS and consumers unknowingly ingesting them.”

Buying organic might help, but there aren’t any organic shops near my house, so I decide to avoid strawberries, and rigorously wash other fruit and vegetables. This presents another challenge, given that tap water contains … you guessed it.

Seafood can also contain significant levels of PFAS. Most supermarket fish is farmed and therefore less likely to have high levels of PFAS than wild-caught fish, according to a study carried out last year – and, generally, experts advise minimising intake of higher risk foods, rather than cutting them out altogether. But, for the sake of the experiment, I decide to avoid fish.

Photograph: Felicity McCabe/The Guardian

Takeaways are prohibited because of their packaging. The worst PFAS offenders are things like pizza boxes, kebab wraps and bakery bags. “The move towards using more paper packaging instead of plastic doesn’t necessarily mean it’s better for the environment, because the paper is often coated with PFAS to make it oil and water-resistant,” says Hawke. Fidra, the charity Kitching works for, has devised “the bead test”. Put a drop of olive oil on the packaging; if it seeps in or spreads, it’s probably OK, but if it forms a bead, it is likely to contain PFAS.

The same applies to disposable coffee cups and paper straws. I have a reusable coffee cup, so this is easy enough. A steeper challenge is the fact that my daughter is obsessed with paper straws and loves to play with them whenever we go out to eat. Metal straws are an easily available PFAS-free alternative – but they aren’t toddler-friendly. A day into the experiment, we’re on a long car journey and I absent-mindedly give my daughter a carton of apple juice, forgetting about the PFAS until I see that she has happily chewed the paper straw into oblivion. I wonder about her plastic plates and endless tiny food containers, but am told the risk there is not PFAS but a whole separate category of toxic chemical, and another can of worms. I decide to leave that can unopened for now.

Water

Testing by the Royal Chemistry Society last year found PFAS in the raw sources of drinking water at 17 of England’s 18 water companies. Affinity, Anglian and Southern Water had samples containing PFAS above the maximum recommended limit. Thames Water, which serves London, where I live, also had trouble spots. I can’t find specific data on my postcode, but it seems likely that my tap water contains at least some PFAS. Even if it’s within the recommended limit, a number of scientific bodies argue the UK’s current “safe” level is too lax, with higher concentration of PFAS permitted than in the US and the EU.

The Drinking Water Inspectorate (DWI) says high concentrations are not found in tap water. However, given that some PFAS have been used since the 1950s, long before the water sector was required to test for them, it is likely that some people will have consumed high levels of PFAS in tap water.

You can get a filtration system which would treat the water from all the taps in your house. But Kitching tells me the priority should be anything with “direct entry to the body”, so I decide to focus on the water I actually consume. Drinking water can be filtered with a jug, but not all filters remove PFAS; Brita, one of the best-known brands, removes around 66%. I get a ZeroWater filter, which claims to remove 94.9% PFAS.

But it’s not as straightforward as it seems. I fill up the kettle to make coffee. It’s baked into my brain that boiling water kills anything bad – but, unlike diarrhoea-causing bacteria, PFAS are not destroyed at boiling point. If I really don’t want to consume forever chemicals, I shouldn’t be cooking or making hot drinks with water straight from the tap. I just don’t know if I’m the sort of person who can filter the water I’m going to boil pasta in.

Cleaning

Life with a toddler means I’m spraying surface cleaner several times a day to clear up crusty Cheerios and discarded pieces of pasta. Cleaning products are a major source of PFAS, but it’s hard to tell which ones contain them. The main thing to look out for in lists of ingredients is the prefix “polyfluoro”, but I check the backs of the bottles of the surface sprays and fabric cleaners in my cupboard and most don’t list ingredients. Instead, I look for products labelled PFAS-free.

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The eco-friendly brand Smol is free of toxic chemicals, including PFAS, and sends me a handy starter pack. The company aims to reduce plastic waste by providing a set of refill bottles and sending subsequent orders in recyclable cardboard cartons. Smol’s surface spray comes as a tablet that dissolves in water. I unthinkingly fill the bottle from the tap instead of the filter. Still, we’re going for reduction rather than elimination here, so I use it to clean my stovetop. It clears oil and cooking splatters just as well as the antibacterial spray I might typically use.

I also get a surface spray from Purdy & Figg, which sells eco-friendly cleaning products. The spray is a small bottle of essential oil that you mix with water in a larger spray bottle. It smells nice, but when I wipe down my table I can’t tell if it’s cleaning any more effectively than water. Perhaps this doesn’t matter. “To reduce your risk of exposure to harmful chemicals, we suggest using cleaning products that are proportionate,” says Hawke. “If you’re just wiping down surfaces after making a sandwich, a mild soap and hot water might do the job.”

Clothing

The most high-risk items of clothing for PFAS are, once again, anything waterproof or stain-resistant. That includes workout gear – sports bras, leggings – which often have water-repellent coatings. Over the past few years, as awareness has grown, a number of major brands have looked to remove PFAS, including Levi, Benneton, Zara, Uniqlo, H&M, Adidas, Reebok and M&S. For kids, Frugi, Tesco’s F&F brand and Primark also say they are PFAS-free.

I look through my wardrobe to see what I’ve got from these shops, and do the same for my two-year-old. My waterproof jacket is from Uniqlo. My daughter’s jacket and “waders” – waterproof trousers that go over her clothes and facilitate her love of puddles – are from Frugi. This means we’re all good on waterproofs, the most high-risk items. The trainers I wear every day are Reebok. My daughter’s wellies are from Bogs. Online, I find Bogs started phasing out PFAS in 2021 and was aiming to eliminate PFAS from new production by the start of 2024.

This sends me into a tailspin about other items. My gym trainers were bought in 2020 (a damning indictment of how often I’ve exercised in the intervening years), and Nike said their products would be PFAS-free by the end of 2021. But Kitching tells me it’s best to opt for PFAS-free versions when you need to replace items, rather than chucking out everything containing forever chemicals immediately. “If it goes into landfill, it just spreads into the environment,” she says.

During my experiment, I wear a PFAS-free sports bra from M&S and a T-shirt and leggings from Uniqlo to a gym class. The clothes are indistinguishable from other workout gear, which makes me wonder why the PFAS are necessary at all. For another class, I experiment with premium activewear from Sheep Inc, a UK-based company producing sustainable clothing from merino wool. The T-shirt and hoodie are beautifully soft and comfortable, as befits the price tag of around £250 a pop. The company says wool will do “exactly what it does on a sheep” and regulate your temperature during exercise (I’ve never seen a sheep at Fitness First). But as my face turns puce, I’m unconvinced that wool and Hiit go together. Outside the gym, however, these clothes are delightful – and, in general, natural fibres are a good bet for avoiding PFAS.

Bathroom

Forever chemicals are great for makeup: they help foundation spread more easily, and render mascara and eyeliner waterproof. An investigation carried out by BBC News in 2023 found PFAS in lipstick, eyeshadow, foundation and mascara made by brands including Urban Decay, a subsidiary of L’Oréal – which said in 2018 they had made the decision to phase out PFAS from their products.

Could I put together a makeup bag full of PFAS-free products? “Cosmetics sometimes list ingredients, so you’d be looking for ‘fluoro’ or ‘PTFE’ in the ingredient name,” says Hawke. I quickly discover not all brands list the ingredients. Given this opacity, Fidra advises people to email companies to ask whether their products contain PFAS. However, I email a few of my favourite makeup brands – Benefit, Estée Lauder, Mac – and get no response, even though I make it clear I’m a journalist. (Estée Lauder and Mac have previously said they are PFOA-free – the more limited definition – and don’t deliberately add PFAS.)

There are a number of natural beauty companies – I try a perfume from Ffern, which is lovely although the scent doesn’t last long – but it’s difficult to find makeup brands which are certified PFAS-free. While researching online, I find more than one website advising that you should stop wearing makeup altogether. This feels unreasonable. Up until this point, I had no idea that H&M makes cosmetics, but they do, and they are all PFAS-free, so I wear an H&M waterproof mascara to a wedding. It keeps my eyes streak-free.

On a less glamorous note, toilet roll often contains PFAS to make it more durable. I already use eco-friendly brand Who Gives a Crap, which says “we would never add fluorine or other PFAS to our products”, but that some testing has found traces, probably unavoidably picked up during the production process. This seems minimal, but I opt for Bumboo, certified PFAS-free. Both are good – a slightly different texture from traditional toilet roll, but not unpleasant.

Child

Throughout my PFAS-free experiment, I try to apply the same vigilance to my daughter’s exposure as to my own. We limit strawberry consumption and drink filtered water; she wears clothes from Tesco F&F, H&M and Frugi. Some baby-specific products – prams, car seats – can contain PFAS. Luckily, our pram is made by Nuna, a PFAS-free brand. But my efforts feel slightly futile. She plays on the floor, closer to the PFAS-filled dust than I get, glugs unfiltered bath water, and watches a film on a tablet, holding it close to her face and touching the screen.

The fact that there are forever chemicals in dust and also in the products you might use to clean up the dust demonstrates what a Sisyphean task this is. Kitching offers a hopeful perspective: “We are exposed to sources of PFAS every single day that we cannot control, so it is a great personal step to reduce exposure in the things you can control.”

But, ultimately, as Fidra, the Chem Trust and others working on this issue argue, it is too much for an individual. I’ve now spent days scouring websites, reading ingredients lists and contacting brands, and I’m still none the wiser about whether some products contain PFAS, or how to find alternatives.

“Really, it shouldn’t be down to the individual,” says Hawke. “It should be down to our decision-makers to put the policy in place to protect people.”

As my experiment ends, I think proportionality is important. I’ll probably try to limit PFAS in the places where it is most well documented and high risk, and relax about ones I can’t keep on top of. I’ll be keeping the new pans, workout clothes, waterproofs and kids’ clothes. But my pasta water will remain unfiltered, and neither my daughter nor I will be giving up strawberries or cucumbers just yet.



I am preparing a tomato sauce in a pan that I’ve owned for a few years. As it bubbles and splatters onto the kitchen surface, I grab a bottle of cleaner and a cloth dampened with tap water to clean it up. Meanwhile, I chop some vegetables on the same counter. This routine seems quite familiar, but this time, I am aware of a hidden ingredient. Throughout this process, so-called “forever chemicals” have potentially been leaching into my food and, eventually, my body. These chemicals are present in the nonstick surface of the pan, the cleaning product, and even the tap water.

I have decided to conduct an experiment to eliminate forever chemicals from my life. These chemicals, known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), are found in various everyday items such as food packaging, toiletries, nonstick cookware, carpets, and waterproof clothing. Despite being used in a wide range of products, PFAS are persistent and do not easily degrade. They contaminate our environment, blood, water, air, and food sources.

Initially, I tended to overlook stories about forever chemicals, dismissing them as part of a long history of exaggerated scare journalism. However, compelling evidence now suggests that paying attention to PFAS is crucial due to their environmental impact and adverse effects on human health. High exposure to certain PFAS has been linked to birth defects, liver damage, reduced immunity, and cancer. Although some of these chemicals have been banned, new varieties are constantly being created and only a small number of PFAS have been thoroughly tested.

The kitchen is a good place to start reducing exposure to PFAS. Nonstick cookware is a common source of these chemicals. I have discovered PFAS-free alternatives from brands like GreenPan, GreenLife, and Ecolution, which provide excellent cooking results without the need for excessive oil. Swapping out my old nonstick pans for these new ones has made a noticeable difference in my cooking routine.

Moreover, I have started paying attention to the presence of PFAS in food items. Recent testing has revealed PFAS in fruits, vegetables, and spices, with strawberries being one of the worst affected. While avoiding certain foods may limit exposure, finding PFAS-free alternatives can be challenging. Organic options may be helpful, but the hidden presence of PFAS in pesticides adds another layer of complexity to food choices.

In addition to food, I have looked into reducing PFAS exposure in other areas of my life, such as water filtration, cleaning products, clothing, makeup, and household items. Filtering drinking water and using PFAS-free cleaning products have been relatively simple changes to make. However, identifying PFAS-free makeup and clothing brands has proven to be more challenging, highlighting the need for greater transparency in product labeling.

Overall, my experiment to eliminate forever chemicals from my life has been eye-opening. While it may not be possible to completely eradicate PFAS exposure, making informed choices and opting for PFAS-free alternatives can help reduce the overall impact. It is essential for both individuals and policymakers to work together to address the widespread presence of these harmful chemicals in our environment and everyday products.