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The Forever Chemical: What You Need to Know About the Carcinogen We’re Exposed to Every Day

This toxin could be in your pots and pans, containers, food, and even water. Known as Perfluorooctane Sulfate, researchers have reason to believe this chemical could cause cancer. Here’s what we know. 

In today's world, we're constantly exposed to an array of chemicals and pollutants. While many of these exposures are unavoidable, there are a few ways to minimise them. One such environmental contaminant that has been under scrutiny for its potential health effects is man-made pollutant Perfluorooctane Sulfate (PFOS). Recent research has linked it to an increased risk for liver cancer – but the tricky part? It’s all around us!

What is PFOS?

PFOS is a synthetic compound that belongs to a class of chemicals known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). These chemicals have been widely used in various industrial and consumer products due to their resistance to heat, water, and oil – it’s why PFOS is referred to as the Forever Chemical. As a result, they have found their way into our environment, including water sources, food, and everyday products.

Here are some common sources of PFOS exposure:

  • Drinking Water: PFOS can contaminate drinking water supplies, especially near areas where firefighting foam containing PFOS has been used or near industrial sites where PFOS was produced or used.
  • Food and Food Packaging: PFOS can accumulate in the food chain. It may be present in some fish, shellfish, and other seafood due to contamination in water bodies. PFOS can also leach into food from packaging materials treated with PFAS, and this is particularly common in takeaway packages, especially the paper kind.

  • Cookware: Some non-stick cookware and bakeware may contain PFAS compounds, which can leach into food during cooking and be ingested.
  • Stain-Resistant Fabrics: Clothing, upholstery, and carpets treated with stain-resistant coatings may contain PFOS. Skin contact or inhaling dust from these materials can result in exposure.
  • Firefighting Foam: Firefighting foams used in emergency response situations, particularly at airports and military bases, have historically contained PFOS. This can lead to soil and water contamination near these sites.
  • Consumer Products: Some consumer products, such as water-resistant outdoor gear and stain-resistant clothing, may contain PFOS or related PFAS chemicals.
  • Occupational Exposure: Workers in industries that manufacture or use products containing PFOS may be at risk of occupational exposure through inhalation or skin contact.
  • Dust and Air: PFOS can be present in household dust and indoor air due to the release of PFAS from treated products, which can result in inhalation exposure.

The Cancer Connection 

Studies from the Keck School of Medicine of USC have indicated a potential link between PFOS exposure and an increased risk of one of the most common forms of non-viral liver cancer, also known as hepatocellular carcinoma. Now previous research has linked the chemical with liver disease in animals, but this is the first human study to draw a connection.

Let’s take a look at what could be behind this risk increase:

  • Bioaccumulation: PFOS has a long half-life, meaning it persists in the environment and can accumulate in living organisms over time. As a result, even small exposures can lead to the gradual buildup of PFOS in our bodies.
  • Disruption of Hormones: PFOS has been shown to disrupt the endocrine system, which plays a crucial role in regulating hormones. Hormone disruption can contribute to the development of cancer.
  • Inflammation and Oxidative Stress: PFOS exposure has been associated with inflammation and oxidative stress, both of which are factors that can promote cancer growth.
  • Carcinogenic Properties: Some animal studies have suggested that PFOS may have carcinogenic properties, potentially leading to the formation of tumours.

Reducing PFOS Exposure

While it's challenging to completely eliminate PFOS exposure, there are steps you can take to reduce your risk:


  • Filter Your Water: Invest in a quality water filter that can remove PFOS from your drinking water. Check with the manufacturer to ensure it's effective against PFAS.
  • Choose PFAS-Free Products: Look for consumer products that are labelled as PFAS-free. This includes cookware, food packaging, and stain-resistant fabrics.
  • Limit Fast Food and Takeout: Some fast-food wrappers and containers can contain PFAS. Reducing your consumption of fast food and takeout can help minimise exposure. Even coffee cups can come with a risk, so you're better off enjoying a brew at home or bringing your own toxin-free cup.
  • Stay Informed: Stay updated on research and government regulations regarding PFAS. Awareness is key to making informed choices. 

Another imperative way to reduce your risk of exposure is to support policies and regulations that restrict the use of PFAS in consumer products and industrial processes – it’s a long and difficult road, especially when money’s involved, but with enough of us behind the cause we can get a little traction.  

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