Heard of “forever chemicals” called PFAS?

March 16, 2021

PFAS in an abbreviation for “per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances,” which are manmade, highly stable fluorinated chemicals. Because PFAS compounds do not break down easily in nature, they are referred to as “forever chemicals.”

Since the 1940s, thousands of PFAS compounds have been created because they are useful in manufacturing consumer products, such as water-repellant outdoor gear, stain-resistant carpet and furniture, and non-stick cookware, as well as in firefighting foam, food packaging, and adhesives, among many other applications. By the early 2000s, the widespread use of these compounds resulted in PFAS being found nearly everywhere on the planet, including pristine environments like the North Pole. The array of consumer products that relied on them meant that PFAS has also been found in the bloodstream of most humans. At higher exposure levels, PFAS has been linked to an increased risk for certain types of disease.

As the challenges posed by these forever chemicals became better understood, manufacturers and regulators in the United States began work to seek effective and less persistent and polluting substitutes. By 2006, use of the two most common PFAS compounds was voluntarily phased-out by manufacturers.

The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is leading an effort that includes other federal agencies, state, local, and tribal governments, and manufacturers to better understand the effects of PFAS on human health and the environment. This includes working to determine a safe level of exposure, referred to as establishing a “maximum contaminant level,” especially for drinking water. This recent article in Scientific American describes how widespread PFAS chemicals are in our drinking water.

Additional studies are underway on how to characterize and test for PFAS compounds, how to treat contaminated waters and soils, and where to safely store and how to destroy these compounds. Texas A&M AgriLife and Texas Tech University have received a $1.3 million research grant to study the environmental risks posed by PFAS in waste streams at landfills and wastewater treatment facilities. Purdue University, University of Florida, and University of Illinois at Chicago also received a grant to study ways to minimize PFASs in municipal wastewater and groundwater.

Much of what you have probably heard in the news has been related to higher concentrations of PFAS found in wells near airports which have used PFAS foams in firefighting training, at Air Force bases, and near manufacturing facilities.

Many communities now sample water for PFAS under the EPA’s Unregulated Contaminant Monitoring Rule to ensure the safety of the drinking water supply. Ask your local utility about measures taken in your area.

Photo credit: Sviatlana Lazarenka |iStock | Getty Images Plus