From pizza boxes to the blood of people living in remote arctic communities, there is a type of substance all around us raising serious concern over its impact on our health. To make matters worse, it may never go away.
While there may be a growing awareness of how we are increasingly surrounded by all-too-visible environmentally damaging plastic pollution, we are also in the midst of a potential danger we cannot see. They are called PFAS.
Perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, collectively called PFAS, are a group of over 4,700 types of chemicals that, since the 1940s, have been manufactured and used in a whole range of everyday products, such as non-stick cookware, stain-resistant clothing, cosmetics, food packaging, as well as firefighting foam.
However, PFAS chemicals have increasingly found their way from the products they were designed to enhance into the wider ecosystem, the food and water chains, animals, and people. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and Prevention’s National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey found that PFAS are present in the blood of 97% of Americans. Now, there is growing concern about their potential health impact.
According to Julie Schneider of the CHEM Trust campaign group, “PFAS pollution is ubiquitous in the environment and humans, being found across the world including in Arctic air, snow, wildlife, and human blood and breastmilk.”
What makes them even more concerning from an environmental and health standpoint is that once PFAS are there, they virtually never go away. They do not break down naturally and some can take over 1,000 years to degrade, earning PFAS the moniker “forever chemicals.”
PFAS Infiltrate Global Ecosystems
What gives PFAS their unique, manmade properties is their molecular composition. In their most basic form, they are essentially a chain of linked carbon and fluorine atoms. The bond between carbon and fluorine is one of the strongest in nature, which means these types of chemicals simply do not degrade. Their stability enables them to repel things like oil, heat, and water. From a manufacturing standpoint, that can be hugely beneficial, but from an environmental one, their longevity poses a major challenge.
As you might expect with chemicals which are in widespread use, it is extremely difficult to ensure they do not end up where they are not supposed to be, whether that is in our bodies, the food chain, rivers, or oceans.
PFAS are found in water, air, fish, and soil at locations across the US and the globe. In fact, they have even been found on Mount Everest and in Arctic Sea Ice.
PFAS can be released into the environment all too easily, at virtually every stage of their life cycle, through dust, air, food, water or soil. Whether they are spilled during the manufacturing process of a product into a water system, transferred from food packaging onto the food we put into our bodies, or when firefighting foam ends up in the sewers and eventually in the oceans, they can end up almost anywhere.
Once they are in the water, getting rid of them is very difficult. Some treatment plants can use activated carbon which can filter out some of the PFAS and other contaminants, but not all of them. The process can also be time-consuming and expensive.
Once they escape into the food chain and wider environment, they can move around the world. PFAS are found in water, air, fish, and soil at locations across the US and the globe. In fact, they have even been found on Mount Everest and in Arctic Sea ice.
PFAS Studies Suggest Alarming Health Risks
Uncertainty still surrounds the full potential health impact of PFAS, but what little is known is increasingly causing alarm in the scientific community.
According to the CDC, research suggests that exposure to some PFAS can cause cancer, increased cholesterol levels, liver damage, thyroid disease and impact the immune system. Other studies suggest some PFAS can cause developmental problems in children, lower a woman’s chance of getting pregnant, and disrupt hormone levels.
Even more concerningly, unborn babies can also be exposed to PFAS through umbilical cord blood from their mothers during pregnancy, while newborns can be exposed through breast milk or through formula made with water that contains PFAS.
Global Efforts to Stop PFAS Pollution Are Just a Start
Fears about the impact of PFAS has prompted some action. In October 2021, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) published a strategic roadmap, setting out its plans up until 2024 to address the issue of PFAS pollution.
The strategy is based around three central objectives: investment in research, restricting the release of PFAS into the environment, and accelerating the clean-up of contamination.
The strategy aims to place responsibility for limiting exposures and addressing contamination onto companies that produce PFAS. It also aims to speed up the deployment of treatment, remediation, destruction, disposal, and mitigation technologies for PFAS.
The EPA is also creating a plan for new national drinking water standards for two types of PFAS—PFOA and PFOS—and is bringing in rules to prevent companies from dumping PFAS into waterways. There will also be a national testing strategy and a study of PFAS in fish.
“The casual use of highly persistent and harmful chemicals must stop if we are to safeguard the health of future generations and protect wildlife and the wider environment.” –Dr. Julie Schneider of CHEM Trust
In other parts of the globe, governments have also announced further action. In April 2021, the Canadian Departments of Environment and of Health issued a notice of intent to address PFAS.
In 2020, the European Commission (the executive branch of the European Union) announced a plan to phase out the use of PFAS unless they were proven to be essential for the application they were designed for.
Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden, Denmark, and Norway have also announced that they will submit a restriction proposal for PFAS to the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) by July 2022, a move which is seen as the first step towards a ban.
However, campaign groups like the CHEM Trust are calling for tougher action.
Schneider says, “These very persistent PFAS chemicals have no place in everyday consumer products that may only be used for a short time and then thrown away. The casual use of highly persistent and harmful chemicals must stop if we are to safeguard the health of future generations and protect wildlife and the wider environment. Companies must clean up their act immediately.”
Reducing Exposure in the Developing World
While developed nations may gradually be committing to tackling the issue, another challenge is emerging in countries where the health and science sectors are not as well equipped to test and monitor the proliferation of the chemicals and where governments both local and national often do not have the finances or resources to impose protective legislation.
People living in developing countries face a perfect storm of problems when it comes to PFAS. One problem is that they are still subject to the fallout from these “forever chemicals” even if they do not live near any manufacturing sites. The second problem is that, where PFAS are manufactured and used, there is often even less regulation and monitoring than had been present in more developed countries.
This was brought into sharp focus in a study published in 2019, which found that PFAS water pollution was abundant in developing nations in Asia and the Middle East. Contained in that report, were some truly stark figures.
In Malaysia, for example, a drinking water source used by 6 million people, tested significantly over the PFAS regulatory limits in the United States. In Indonesia, PFAS levels in the Jakarta Bay were ten times higher than the record high recorded in the San Francisco Bay area.
If people living in developing nations are to be spared from the potentially damaging impact of PFAS, it seems clear that a global approach is needed for what is, due to its very nature, a global problem.
While developed nations may have the resources and financial muscle to devote to tackling the problem head on, concerns remain around how developing countries can protect their citizens from a potential health hazard which impacts even the unborn. A hazard which, if we do not find a way to deal with it, could be around for literally the next thousand years.
Schneider advocates for a ban on all non-essential uses of PFAS chemicals. “Every year of delay in regulating this group of ‘forever chemicals’ increases the pollution burden. Some PFAS emitted today could still be present in the environment in several centuries. A ban on all non-essential uses of PFAS chemicals should be urgently implemented.”
*Mark Smith is a journalist and author from the UK. He has written on subjects ranging from business and technology to world affairs, history, and popular culture for the Guardian, BBC, Telegraph, and magazines in the United States, Europe, and Southeast Asia.