PFAS 101: A Guide to “Forever Chemicals”
PFAS are a group of synthetic chemicals that have quietly slipped into many aspects of our daily lives. Known as "forever chemicals," these compounds have become a major source of global concern and research due to their widespread presence, resistance to degradation, and potential health and environmental impacts.
Together, we’ll explore what PFAS are, where they’re found, the environmental and health implications associated with these chemical pollutants, and some of the steps you can take to minimize your exposure.
PFAS stands for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, which is a class of synthetic, man-made chemicals characterized by their unique carbon-fluorine (C–F) bond.
One of the strongest and most stable chemical bonds known to man, these chemicals are resistant to heat and water, which means they persist in the environment and won’t break down the way a leaf eventually becomes soil.
PFAS are released into the air, soil, and water during manufacturing processes as well as during waste storage and treatment. Sites that are known or suspected of using PFAS include:
But those aren’t the only places where PFAS are found. Since the 1950s, these synthetic substances have been added to lots of common household products that we use every day including:
Food packaging like microwave popcorn bags, fast food wrappers, pizza boxes, and other grease-resistant paper products; even compostable bowls labeled “environmentally-friendly” sometimes contain PFAS
Researchers continue to test consumer products for PFAS and often find it in products where PFAS were not intentionally added; many food, cosmetics, and clothing items fall under this category.
So whether we’re putting on makeup, enjoying a takeout meal, playing with our kids in the living room, or enjoying the great outdoors, we’re constantly coming into contact with PFAS.
Manufacturing these products isn’t the only way PFAS are released into the environment. When we dispose of common household products that contain PFAS, they enter landfills. Now, most landfills do not remove PFAS so when rain falls, it creates a toxic liquid waste that is absorbed into the soil and nearby water sources like rivers and lakes, which are all connected to the ocean.
PFAS from clothing, fabrics, and cleaners also get washed down the drain and flow to wastewater treatment plants, most of which are not advanced enough to remove PFAS. Instead, these chemicals remain in treated water and biosolids (recycled sewage) that are sometimes used in agriculture, which can contaminate the very soil and water used to raise the fruits, vegetables, and meat we eat every day. The same is true for microplastic particles, which may also contain PFAS.
One of the biggest concerns with PFAS is their environmental impact. Because they resist water and heat, PFAS don’t break down when they enter the environment. Instead, they accumulate in ever-greater concentrations.
The presence of PFAs in the environment can harm wildlife and disrupt the healthy functioning of contaminated ecosystems, potentially leading to changes in species composition and ecological interactions.
PFAS can also bioaccumulate in plants and animals. This means that these toxic chemicals are being stored inside the bodies of living things.
And, as they work their way up the food chain, the concentration of these toxins increases—a phenomenon known as biomagnification.
So animals at the top of the food chain tend to have higher amounts of toxins stored in their bodies than animals or plants at the lower end of the food chain.
Human health concerns
PFAS are not just problematic for wildlife and the environment; they also pose health risks for humans.
Scientific studies have already linked PFAS exposure with various cancers, immune suppression, developmental issues in children, reproductive dysfunction, and changes in liver and thyroid function. The human health risks associated with PFAS exposure are still not well understood, which is why they’re the subject of ongoing research and concern.
PFAS contamination in our water supply is already widespread. In fact, testing has revealed PFAS in drinking water systems across all 50 U.S. states and two U.S. territories—Guam and Puerto Rico. Bottled water is also a cause for concern with 39 out of 100 bottled waters testing positive for PFAS. The FDA has not yet set PFAS limits for bottled water and, according to experts, the full extent of the problem remains unknown.
The interaction between PFAS and plastic pollution
Plastics, especially microplastics, have the ability to absorb chemical pollutants from the surrounding environment and can store these toxins in concentrations up to one million times greater than seawater.
Just like PFAS, microplastics have already worked their way into the food chain, contributing to the bioaccumulation and biomagnification of toxins in living animals. This raises new questions about the extended consequences of plastic pollution and the role it plays in PFAS dispersion.
Despite growing concerns about the health and environmental impacts of PFAS, there are no federal standards limiting PFAS discharges. In 2021, the EPA introduced a “PFAS roadmap” with a timeline for setting standards for basic things like drinking water and wastewater treatment as well as health assessment protocols and hazardous substance designations for several PFAS chemicals.
Congress is also considering comprehensive PFAS legislation. The PFAS Action Act of 2021 was passed by the U.S. House of Representatives and has advanced to the Senate. A separate House bill, the Clean Water Standards for PFAS Act, would require water discharge limits on PFAS from chemical manufacturers, pain, paper, plastics, electrical components, textiles, leather tanning, metal finishing, and electroplating companies.
At least 32 U.S. states are considering more than 210 bills that would ban or restrict PFAS, including in personal care products, clothing, and food packaging. Your voice is needed to support these bills, so find your local representatives and reach out to let them know how much these issues mean to you.
The challenge of addressing PFAS is relatively new, but urgent action is required. While some countries and states have started taking measures to regulate and monitor these chemicals, it's clear that more needs to be done to help guide new regulations, which is currently a significant challenge.
It will be almost impossible to avoid PFAS completely and the cost of cleaning up these chemicals is enormous. However, there are still steps you can take to reduce your risk and advocate for change.
It's vital that we continue to raise awareness about PFAS, advocate for regulatory measures, and invest in research to fully understand the consequences of these chemical compounds.
By addressing this issue comprehensively, we can minimize the impact of these chemicals on both the environment and human health and work towards a cleaner, safer future.
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