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What Do You Know About PFAS? The Damaging Effects and Why We Shouldn't Avoid It

16 May 2019

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PFAS is a big problem but one that is not widely known about. Yet PFAS is present in more places than we think and its effects can be life threatening. We discuss what it is, where these chemicals can be found and what is being done about the problem. 

What is PFAS?

PFAS is the group name for a number of man-made chemicals – it stands for per - and polyfluoroalkyl substances.  There are four chemicals within this family which are commonly studied:

PFOA: Perfluorooctanoic acid;

PFOS: Perfluorooctane sulfonic acid;

PFHxS: Perfluorohexane sulfonic acid;

PFNA: Perfluorononanoic acid

The most harmful of these chemicals, particularly when it comes to human health concerns, are PFOA and PFOS and these form the basis for most action taken by environment agencies and other regulating bodies. Yet, there remains a lack of knowledge around these chemicals, how to deal with them and their effects if they are left untouched.

Where did PFAS come from and where can the chemicals be found?

PFAS chemicals were developed in the 1940s and are formed by bonding fluorine with carbon. They repel oil, grease and water and do not break down in the environment.  PFAS chemicals are also bio-accumulative which means they increase in concentration as they move up the food chain.  They are used in lots of everyday items like non-stick cookware, water-repellent clothing, stain resistant fabrics and carpets, some cosmetics and firefighting foams. 

The use of PFAS is so widespread that, when combined with the fact that they do not break down in the environment, it was estimated in the year 2000 that PFOS had contaminated the blood of more than 95%[1] of the world's human population along with wildlife in remote areas of the globe.  A striking example of this is the discovery that PFAS contamination was increasing the risk of breast cancer among Inuit women in Greenland, a population with no connection to PFAS chemicals at all but still being affected by them.  

PFOA has also been found in polar bears in the Arctic, we're speculating here but we'd guess that this is through eating contaminated seals who have in turn eaten contaminated fish, highlighting the bio-accumulative effect of the PFAS family chains (If you know more about why, wed' love to hear from you!).

How does human exposure to PFAS take place?

 Human exposure to PFAS can be caused in multiple, unavoidable ways like drinking contaminated water, eating fish caught in contaminated water, accidentally swallowing contaminated soil or dust, eating food packaged in material containing PFAS etc.  Exposure can also be caused to unborn and newborn babies through umbilical transfer and breastfeeding. 

It is the firefighting foam, also known as Aqueous Film Forming Foam (AFFF), which causes the major problem in many countries due to its extensive use on training sites, military sites and throughout communities.  This foam can contaminate not only the land on which it is used but also the wider environment as it is washed away into streams, rivers and other areas.  At this point, it is likely that there is nowhere on earth which does not have soil or water contaminated with PFAS to some degree, mainly because the substances are highly soluble and thus can disperse over large distances via water.

What are the effects of PFAS exposure?

The suspected health effects of PFAS exposure are varied but can be listed at a high level as the following:

  • Affects growth, learning and behaviour of infants and older children;
  • Lower a woman's chance of getting pregnant;
  • Interfere with the body's natural hormones;
  • Increase cholesterol levels;
  • Affect the immune system;
  • Increase the risk of cancer;
  • It has even been linked to weight gain in women by some studies.

What’s being done about PFAS?

In 2006, the eight major US companies in the PFAS industry agreed to significantly reduce production of PFOA and associated compounds by 2010, and work toward elimination by 2015 under a voluntary agreement with the US Environmental Protection Agency."[2]

Recently, the UN committee of the Stockholm Convention on the Persistent Organic Pollutants went one step further and recommended a total global ban on the manufacture and use of both PFOA and PFOS.  This will be introduced at the next meeting of the Convention in 2019 and would be legally binding in all 181 countries, plus the European Union member states. 

This means, in the next few years, the most harmful PFAS chemicals could be completely banned; this may prevent further exposure and damage to both the environment and humans, but it will not help deal with what is there now. 

It is likely that despite these regulations, the PFAS problem is so entrenched that serious issues will continue well into the future. 

There's no doubt about it- PFAS is a big issue and it shouldn't be one that we avoid. 


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