It turns out “forever chemicals,” pushed into the spotlight by government action this week to ban them, touch our lives — and our bottoms — in many ways. That includes from the toilet paper we buy, a new study says.
The federal government for the first time ever is proposing to demand that utilities remove from drinking water toxic chemicals known to cause health issues, including certain types of cancer. The Environmental Protection Agency will require near-zero levels in water of perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, part of a classification of chemicals known as PFAS, or “forever chemicals.”
Exposure to some of the chemicals has been linked to cancer, liver damage, and fertility and thyroid problems, as well as asthma and other health effects, according to some studies. By at least one measure, PFAS at some level have been found in the bloodstream of 98% of Americans. Even very young babies show traces of these chemicals in their bloodstream, according to at least one study.
But “forever chemicals” aren’t just a water issue.
PFAS are ubiquitous in modern lifestyles. They’re part of the manufacturing of items including stain-resistant and waterproof clothing, cookware and dental floss.
Earlier this year, the Thinx brand of period-protection underwear pushed as a cleaner and greener answer to menstruation settled a class-action lawsuit that had alleged PFAS exposure for users. The company denied the presence of these chemicals and said its manufacturing process continues to screen for PFAS.
The study, published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology Letters, found evidence of PFAS in toilet paper. An academic team led by researchers at the University of Florida concluded that our hygienic go-to after going is likely a source of PFAS entering wastewater-treatment systems.
Jake Thompson, the study’s lead author and a PhD student in environmental engineering at the University of Florida, studies PFAS. Because he knew that PFAS are used in paper manufacturing broadly, he wondered if they were detectable in toilet paper, which can share the same manufacturing plants.
Thompson said on air to a Miami television station that he grabbed a few rolls from his home and his lab, did a quick extraction, and could measure PFAS.
Then he expanded the study. From there, researchers analyzed samples of toilet paper from four regions — Africa, North America, South and Central America, and Western Europe — between November 2021 and August 2022. They detected six types of PFAS in the toilet-paper samples and said one chemical in particular, 6:2 diPAP, was especially prevalent.
No one brand stood out as having higher concentrations of the chemicals, they said.
And while this particular study didn’t dig into any health effects specifically tied to PFAS and toilet paper, the researchers say that based on their calculations, toilet paper was a likely contributor to overall PFAS in wastewater.
Thompson told the Miami station that the findings don’t suggest everyone stop using toilet paper. Instead, revealing how much the chemicals exist in modern society, including even on toilet paper, should prompt businesses and consumers to think how they might limit PFAS across a wide range of products.