Tech & Science dictionary

forever chemicals

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What are forever chemicals?

Forever chemicals is an informal term that collectively refers to the class of synthetic chemicals known as perfluoroalkyl substances and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS. There are thousands of different PFAS used in a wide range of industrial and consumer products.

PFAS are commonly referred to as forever chemicals because they last for hundreds of years before degrading completely. The term is especially used in the context of the toxicity of such substances and the serious dangers that they pose to health and the environment.

Though the full extent of the effects of PFAS is unknown, studies have shown that they are widespread as contaminants, with trace amounts being detected in a range of sources around the world, including in rainwater and in humans and animals. Many environmental organizations have pushed for increased government regulation and cleanup of such substances.

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Where does forever chemicals come from?

filtered image of someone filling up glass of water from faucet

Perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances are synthetic chemicals that are manufactured for a wide range of uses, including industrial and consumer products. The informal name forever chemicals references the fact that PFAS can last for hundreds of years before fully degrading. This durability leads to buildup (called bioaccumulation) that poses serious health and environmental dangers, including the potential to cause disease.

PFAS have been used since the 1940s, but the term forever chemicals seems to have emerged in the later 2010s. Research during that time showed that PFAS were more dangerous at smaller amounts than previously thought. Discoveries like this caused PFAS to be a frequent topic of media reports and the focus of environmental activism.

People can be exposed to PFAS in a variety of ways, such as by drinking contaminated water or eating animal flesh that contains them.

Examples of forever chemicals

A study has found that rainwater everywhere on Earth is unsafe to drink due to toxic ‘forever chemicals’. If this isn’t the most alarming piece of news then I don’t know what is. We’ve totally destroyed our Earth.
@lifewithsommer, August 8, 2022
These synthetic substances called PFAS are used in non-stick pans, fire-fighting foam and water-repellent clothes. Dubbed 'forever chemicals', they persist for years in the environment. Such is their prevalence now that scientists say there is no safe space on Earth to avoid them.
Matt McGrath, BBC, August 2022

Who uses forever chemicals?

Forever chemicals is an informal but commonly used term to refer to PFAS. The term is especially used in the discussion of the health and environmental dangers that such substances pose.

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This is not meant to be a formal definition of forever chemicals like most terms we define on, but is rather an informal word summary that hopefully touches upon the key aspects of the meaning and usage of forever chemicals that will help our users expand their word mastery.