Deadly Yet Impossible to Escape: Understanding the PFAS Dilemma

Did you know that over 350,000 chemical compounds have currently been registered for commercial production and use? Out of these, at least thousands of them are entirely synthetic or manmade. Just like the International Energy Agency puts it, contemporary society is heavily dependent on chemicals.

These compounds are found everywhere – fertilizers for better agricultural yields, preservatives in packaged food items, masking fragrances in cosmetic products, and so on. One such group of chemicals that has recently garnered much attention is PFAS.

What are these chemicals all about, and what are the concerns surrounding them? This article will discuss the ‘PFAS dilemma’ in detail.

What are PFAS, and Why Were They Produced?

By the name itself, you may consider PFAS to be a single chemical compound. However, it is an acronym for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances. PFAS is a complex group of over 12,000 chemicals that are primarily used in industrial applications.

Their chemistry was first discovered towards the late 1930s. It was not until the 1950s that these chemicals were produced on a mass scale for industrial use. At the time, the American multinational conglomerate 3M was the primary producer of these chemicals.

They were essentially used in consumer goods like raincoats, non-stick cookware, stain-resistant carpets, etc. This is because of PFAS’ ability to repel water, oil, and grease. Around this time, these chemicals’ features made them a solid candidate for developing firefighting foam.

Also known as Aqueous Film Forming Foam, AFFF was produced with its main ingredient being PFAS. This foam was used to extinguish fires of a Class B nature (caused by liquid fuels like gasoline and jet fuel). 

Even firefighter gear had a film of PFAS to prevent water or oil from sticking to it. For decades, PFAS continued to gain public attention for good reasons.

PFAS Wreak Havoc on the Environment and Human Health

Sadly, their popularity did not last long. It was in 1998 that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was first notified of the risks surrounding PFAS. Reports were published where they were termed as the ‘forever chemicals’ for not degrading in the environment or the human body.

This in itself was alarming enough because anything healthy and natural can break down in its natural environment. However, PFAS manufacturers knew the composition of carbon and fluorine needed to build these chemical bonds. Yet, they had no clue of how to break them down.

What’s worse is that the direct link between PFAS and deadly cancers like kidney and testicular cancer was discovered. The most affected group was firefighters and military servicemen who were heavily and regularly exposed to these chemicals.

According to studies, firefighters are at a 9% higher risk of developing cancer and a 14% higher risk of dying from the condition than the general masses. The second decade of the 21st century involved new cases of cancer emerging among firefighters due to AFFF exposure. Thousands of them began filing a lawsuit against the manufacturers – 3M, DuPont, etc.

In 2018, the firefighting foam lawsuit officially became a class-action multi-district litigation. The plaintiffs alleged that they developed cancers of the bladder, kidneys, testicles, etc., due to exposure to PFAS-based AFFF. 

Not only that but it was claimed that the manufacturers were aware of the health risks involved. However, they kept their profits over people’s lives. Besides, TorHoerman Law states that the AFFF lawsuit can be filed under two categories – personal injury cases filed by firefighters and water contamination cases filed by municipalities. 

Accordingly, PFAS have been found to seep into the ground, thereby contaminating groundwater and community water supply. The trial in water contamination cases was conducted last year, after which 3M agreed to pay $10.3 billion as a 13-year settlement. 

The EPA still has at least 180 Superfund sites polluted by PFAS that require rigorous cleanup and management. Given the chaos already caused, 3M has promised to stop all PFAS production by the end of 2025.

PFAS Won’t Go Away Anytime Soon

Notwithstanding the damage PFAS are capable of, they are here to stay for the long haul. Scientists have discovered that these chemicals crowd the earth like never before. For instance – one study found that 45% of US tap water is laden with these chemicals.

Moreover, rainwater samples all over the world (even Antarctica) had traces of PFAS in them. Being virtually indestructible, PFAS can stay in the environment for generations to come. This makes it necessary to find a concrete solution that breaks them down and eliminates them.

What’s more, is that an increasing number of consumer products have PFAS in them. These include the packaging of fast food joints like Burger King and McDonald’s. Even healthier spots like Sweetgreen and Cava use PFAS-based food packages.

Furthermore, PFAS (albeit in small amounts) are used in manufacturing stain-resistant products, dental floss, certain shampoos, etc. It won’t be an exaggeration to state that at the current rate, it is nearly impossible to escape the ‘forever chemicals.’

Can PFAS Ever Be Eliminated?

Indeed, PFAS cannot be escaped. This means every person in the world (even infants) would have varying levels of PFAS in their bodies. However, this begs another important question – can PFAS ever be eliminated for good?

3M (and others) may stop their production by the end of 2025, but what about the massive quantities already bio-accumulating the Earth? Research for this is rigorously underway, and progress is also being made.

An example would be the discovery made by the professors of the University of Missouri. The team used thermal induction to rapidly degrade PFAS off the surface of materials like anion exchange resins and activated carbon.

Another group of researchers from Northwestern University found that the relatively simple method of using sodium hydroxide and dimethyl sulfoxide can break PFAS down. This method was found to be energy-efficient, safe, and effective as it degrades the bond into fluoride ions and related harmless by-products.

Finally, these methods of PFAS removal are still in their experimental/trial stages. Only time will reveal if they are as effective as deemed to be. Meanwhile, environmentalists wait with bated breath for a permanent solution. This is crucial since the safety of the environment, humans, and wildlife is at stake.  

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