Forever (and ever) chemicals

February 9, 2022

PFAS, or per and polyfluoroalkyl substances, have been the subject of a number of not-so-flattering documentaries, films, podcasts, and articles. But what exactly are these chemicals and why all the negative press? Read on to find out what they are, where they are found, and the health and environmental risks they pose.

What are per and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS)?

PFAS is an umbrella term for a group of over 4000 chemicals. They are man-made and ubiquitous, found in non-stick pans, food wrappers and packaging, artificial leather, pizza boxes, waterproof clothing and shoes, photo paper, carpets, makeup, medical devices, pesticides, food, drinking water, and the blood of animals and humans—to name just a few of the more common places! These chemicals––some of which include GenX, C8 and PFOA––repel water, grease and dirt, making them highly effective additions to rainwear, homewares, and food packaging. 

The non-stick in non-stick cookware is from PFAS
The non-stick in non-stick cookware is from PFAS

However, PFAS have a dark secret––they are extremely detrimental to human (and animal) health, and although major companies have known this for the past 50 years or more, PFAS are still widely used.  

What is the problem with PFAS?

Very rarely is the term ‘forever’ aptly used, but in the case of PFAS it is a highly accurate moniker. Once in the environment, these chemicals are known to last thousands of years, which may not be forever, but by the time some PFAS have gone, there are thousands more ready to take their place. They last so long that scientists have not even been able to estimate the half-life of these chemicals as yet.

They are toxic and are known to cause, amongst other ailments, an increased risk of cancer (primarily kidney and testicular), decreased weight for newborns, increased liver weight and change in liver enzymes, ulcerative colitis, and a decreased vaccine immune response.  

PFAS are bioaccumulative, which means they build up over time. This could relate to the bioaccumulation of PFAS in the water, air, fisheries, and soil, or to the build-up of the chemical in the human body. Over the past 50+ years, companies using these chemicals have dumped them into waterways—even after they knew the damage it could cause. Most wastewater sites can’t filter them, so they end up in drinking water, causing a myriad of health problems. 

In 1976 the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) was established, which required the EPA to evaluate the safety of chemicals via a three-prong process. Due to evidence being not well documented, or purposely left out of official documents, PFAS was not properly regulated. In 2016, the EPA issued a health advisory with regards to two of the most common types of PFAS: PFOA and PFOS, with the former used in a wide range of products, and the latter found commonly in firefighting foam. The EPA’s advisory recommended 70 parts per trillion (ppt) of PFOA and PFOS via drinking water. Although this was a step in the right direction, health advisories are written to provide information on “contaminants that can cause human health effects and are known or anticipated to occur in drinking water” (epa.gov). These advisories are non-regulatory and non-enforceable, and they act merely as informational, where companies can do with it what they want, including nothing at all. 

Firefighting foam is a common source of PFOA, a well-researched and highly dangerous type of PFAS
Firefighting foam is a common source of PFOA, a well-researched and highly dangerous type of PFAS

How are people exposed to PFAS?

Due to their ubiquity, it’s not hard to be exposed to PFAS. Almost everyone alive today (and anyone on the way) will most likely have PFAS in their blood. In the 1970s, there was an experiment to test the build-up of these chemicals in the human body—and even then, back in the 70s when PFAS were less common—they could find no blood that could be used as the control group. In the end, they had to use archived blood from the beginning of the Korean War, in the 1950s. A 2015 study by the CDC found that 97% of Americans had PFAS in their blood. 

The future of PFAS

The future of PFAS is slowly unravelling, but is it a case of too little too late? 

In 2019, participating governments under the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants agreed to take measures to decrease and ultimately eliminate the use and production of PFOA. Although this was a move in the right direction, this chemical was replaced with a new ‘safer’ alternative called GenX. However, there are already questions about its safety and whether or not it’s just a less-regulated PFOA/C8 in new and shiny clothing. 

Some governments are looking to ban PFAS altogether. This will be a long, arduous journey that only five countries have embarked on. Germany, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, and Denmark have announced their intentions in submitting a restriction proposal to ECHA by 19 July 2022. This is the first step toward banning the pernicious chemicals. 

In addition to this, Denmark made an announcement with regards to their use of PFAS. From July 2020, all cardboard and paper food contact materials (FCMs) were to be PFAS-free. In a study done between 2015 and 2018, it was found that 50% of cardboard and paper packaging included in the report contained fluorinated compounds. 

Denmark will still allow cardboard and paper packaging as long as there is a functional barrier between the packaging material and the food itself. 
Denmark will still allow cardboard and paper packaging as long as there is a functional barrier between the packaging material and the food itself. 

Although banning PFAS is the ultimate response, it may not be so easy, as PFAS is ubiquitous in every sense of the word. So, the question remains: does using a non-stick pan that has a PFAS coating cause harm? The answer is, not necessarily, as long as it’s used responsibly. However, there are many healthier alternatives to these types of non-stick pans, which would be better in the long term. If the coating on your non-stick pan is starting to come off, it might be time to move onto a new pan. However, when it comes to a problem this detrimental to society, it shouldn’t be up to individuals to regulate its use—it should be the responsibility of companies and governments to keep people safe.

As it stands, companies that manufacture products containing PFAS do not have to specify this fact. In the future, it has been suggested that companies begin to include this information in their labels, as it will at least allow consumers to make an informed decision. 

Chemwatch is here to help

If you’re not sure how to store or handle your chemicals, Chemwatch is here to help. Contact us if you need assistance with your Heat Mapping, Risk Assessment, asset and chemicals management, and more. Get in touch today at sales@chemwatch.net

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