A lot of chemicals can enter our food chain and drinking water sources. In fact, many of these substances have been linked to severe health risks, from cancer to reproductive issues. One such chemical is PFAS.
Although its use has dramatically declined since its peak in 2004, it’s still a regular part of the environment. It can cause serious health problems if consumed over time. If you want more information about how this chemical affects your body and what you can do about it, keep reading.
What are PFAS Chemicals?
PFAS, which stands for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, are a group of man-made chemicals. PFAS are characterized by their unique chemical structure, which includes a chain of carbon atoms bonded to fluorine atoms.
This strong carbon-fluorine bond gives PFAS remarkable properties. These properties include heat, water, and oil resistance, which has led to their use in a wide range of industrial and consumer products.
PFAS is used for various applications, such as non-stick cookware, food packaging, and aqueous firefighting foams (AFFF). It was also widely used by the Department of Defense. Hence, the organization has taken up the duty of environmental restoration. The process has already commenced at 687 locations where the release of PFAS has been suspected.
The Widespread Contamination
The widespread contamination of PFAS chemicals is a serious problem. These chemicals are found in many places, including:
- Firefighting foams. The AFFF used on military bases and airports contains PFAS. When this foam washes into the water system, it can contaminate drinking water with PFAS chemicals. Estimations show that at least 45% of the nation’s tap water has PFAS. Moreover, firefighters in direct contact with AFFF for an extended period are at a higher risk of developing health problems like cancer.
- Food packaging materials. Some types of packaging for processed food contain PFAS chemicals. It may be released into your food when heated in the microwave or oven.
- Clothing. Certain fabrics used to make shirts and pants may contain small amounts of PFOA that come off your skin when you touch them. Washing clothes won’t remove these compounds either because they’re too small to get trapped by soap bubbles.
Health Implications of PFAS Exposure
PFAS exposure can cause severe health problems over the long term. For instance, fetuses and infants exposed to PFAS in their prenatal state are vulnerable.
A recent study shows that long-term exposure of pregnant women results in fetuses getting affected inside the womb. Breastfed babies are also affected, as the chemicals pass on from the mother to the child.
There are many more health problems associated with these forever chemicals. Some of these health concerns include the following:
Cancer risk is one of the most serious health implications of PFAS exposure. It’s important to note that cancer is a risk factor for many people. However, it doesn’t mean everyone exposed to PFAS chemicals will develop cancer.
The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has classified two types of PFAS chemicals as “probable human carcinogens”: PFOA and PFOS. These chemicals have been linked with an increased risk of colon, breast, prostate, and kidney cancers, among other diseases in human studies.
Many firefighters exposed to PFAS have developed various forms of cancer over a long period. According to TorHoerman Law, firefighters have developed kidney, testicular, pancreatic, bladder, prostate, liver, and many other cancers. Several firefighters who have faced such problems have filed lawsuits against manufacturers.
The firefighters allege that the manufacturers failed to inform them about potential health concerns. In fact, the number of cases increased to the extent that they have now been consolidated into an AFFF lawsuit Multidistrict Litigation (MDL). This is an attempt to increase the speed of hearing the cases and getting to a decision.
PFAS chemicals have been found to persist in the environment and the human body, leading to concerns about their potential health effects. Neurological effects are one of the health implications associated with PFAS exposure, although the research in this area is still evolving.
Here are some of the neurological effects and health implications of PFAS exposure:
- Neurobehavioral issues: PFAS exposure has been associated with neurobehavioral problems in children and adults. These issues may include attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), behavioral problems, and emotional disturbances.
- Neuroendocrine disruption: PFAS chemicals can interfere with the endocrine system, which regulates hormone production and signaling. Disruption of the endocrine system can impact neurological function and development.
- Altered neurotransmitter levels: Limited research indicates that PFAS exposure may lead to alterations in neurotransmitter levels in the brain, potentially affecting mood and behavior.
Cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death in the United States, accounting for nearly one-third of all deaths. Cardiovascular disease is also a leading cause of disability.
Exposure to PFAS has been associated with an increased risk for cardiovascular disease and other conditions that can contribute to heart attack. For instance, PFAS can result in problems like high blood pressure (hypertension), diabetes mellitus, and obesity. A study has revealed that women exposed to these chemicals are 71% more likely to develop high blood pressure.
The Environmental Impact
The environmental impact of PFAS exposure is just as significant as human health effects.
PFAS are found in drinking water, soil and groundwater, surface water, and fish. This means that even if you don’t eat seafood, there’s still a chance you could be exposed to PFAS through these sources.
Suppose your local water supply has been contaminated with PFAS-containing chemicals like PFOA or PFOS. In that case, those chemicals are likely being consumed by humans who drink that water daily.
Some studies have shown that people living near contaminated sites have higher levels of fluorinated compounds in their blood than those living farther away.
Mitigation and Remediation
Mitigating and remediating per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) contamination is complex and challenging. This is primarily due to these chemicals’ persistence and widespread presence in the environment. Here are some strategies and methods used for PFAS mitigation and remediation:
Source Control and Regulation:
- Regulatory measures: Implement strict regulations on using, producing, and disposing of PFAS chemicals. Many countries and regions have already established rules to limit the use of certain PFAS compounds.
- Product substitution: Encourage the use of alternative chemicals and materials that are not PFAS-based in various consumer products to reduce the potential for further contamination.
Treatment of Contaminated Water:
- Activated carbon filtration: Granular activated carbon (GAC) and powdered activated carbon (PAC) effectively remove PFAS from drinking water and wastewater.
- Ion exchange resins: Specialized ion exchange resins can selectively remove PFAS from water.
- Membrane filtration: Ultrafiltration and nanofiltration membranes can separate and concentrate PFAS for subsequent treatment or disposal.
- Advanced Oxidation Processes (AOPs): Techniques like UV oxidation, ozonation, and persulfate oxidation can break down PFAS compounds in water.
- Bioremediation: Some researchers are exploring using microorganisms to degrade PFAS in contaminated soil and water, although this method is still experimental.
Treatment of Contaminated Soil:
- Excavation and disposal: Remove and dispose of contaminated soil in a controlled manner.
- In Situ Chemical Oxidation (ISCO): Inject oxidizing agents into the contaminated soil to break down PFAS compounds.
- Thermal treatment: Incineration or thermal desorption can destroy PFAS in contaminated soil, but this can be energy-intensive and expensive.
Waste Management and Disposal:
- Develop safe and environmentally sound disposal methods for PFAS-contaminated materials, such as incineration at high temperatures or encapsulation in specialized waste materials.
- Use pump-and-treat systems to extract contaminated groundwater, treat it to remove PFAS, and then discharge or reinject treated water.
The long-term effects of PFAS exposure are severe and can be avoided by taking action now. The Environmental Protection Agency has set a health advisory level for PFAS in drinking water at 70 parts per trillion (ppt).
This means that any water with more than 70 ppt must be treated before humans or animals consume it.
Sophia has done Masters’s in Mass Communication from Delhi University, India. She is a qualified new reporter and a columnist as well. She worked sometimes for BenjaNews as well.