PFAS column sparks several follow-up questions

Hello again, dear readers, and welcome to our monthly letters column. We’re headed into the season of indoor gatherings, so it’s time to think about strategies for preventing COVID-19 and the flu. We’ll discuss this soon in an upcoming column. For now, we urge everyone to please get your flu vaccine and the new bivalent COVID-19 booster. It’s recommended for everyone 5 years of age and older who has completed the initial vaccine series. Being vaccinated makes a difference. And now, on to your letters.

-- We recently discussed PFAS, an acronym for perfluoroalkyl or polyfluoroalkyl substances. This is a large and complex group of so-called “forever chemicals” used in the manufacture of numerous everyday products, including microwave popcorn. PFAS have been linked to adverse health effects, including high blood pressure, decreased fertility in women, liver damage and cancer. They are widespread, found in the water we drink, the soil in which we grow our food and in the blood of 97% of Americans.

The column prompted a reader to weigh in: “I feel you should have pointed out that there is legislation in several states requiring the removal of PFAS from the microwave products sold in their state,” they wrote. “As a result, many companies will no longer be selling products with PFAS, and the risk will be eliminated.” We’re glad you brought this up. Our column focused on explaining the chemicals and their health effects, and on answering the reader’s specific question. That didn’t leave room to address bans on PFAS. You are correct that more than two dozen states have either enacted legislation that bans the use of PFAS in certain products or have updated environmental regulations that effectively curtail their use. However, it’s a patchwork of regulations and leaves plenty of room for loopholes. All concerned parties agree that strong federal regulations are needed, not only to protect consumers, but also to hold manufacturers accountable for past PFAS pollution.

Elizabeth Ko, MD and Eve Glazier, MD

-- The column on PFAS left another reader confused about microwave popcorn. “Is using a microwave to make popcorn bad for you, or is it just the popcorn that comes in a bag that’s bad?” they asked. The potential health hazards referenced in the column are associated with the pre-bagged microwave popcorn that is sold in stores. That’s because the packaging in those products contains PFAS.

-- We’ll end with one more popcorn question. “When you recommend not eating too much microwaved popcorn, does that mean when it’s microwaved in the purchased bag?” they asked. “Is it safe to eat if it is removed from the bag and then microwaved in a bowl?” The PFAS in store-bought microwave popcorn are infused into the lining of the bag. They keep the fats from leaking and prevent the bag from scorching. People who regularly eat microwave popcorn have significantly higher levels of PFAS in their blood than those who don’t. To be safe, use your own popcorn and a glass bowl or a plain paper bag when using the microwave to make this snack.

Thank you again to everyone who took the time to write. We love hearing from you, and we try to respond to as many of your comments and questions as we can.

(Send your questions to askthedoctors@mednet.ucla.edu, or write: Ask the Doctors, c/o UCLA Health Sciences Media Relations, 10960 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 1955, Los Angeles, CA, 90024. Owing to the volume of mail, personal replies cannot be provided.)


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