PFAS: What Are ‘Forever Chemicals’?

Concern continues to grow worldwide about a group of chemicals called ‘PFAS’, also known as ‘forever chemicals’. Decades of scientific research strongly suggest adverse health outcomes associated with PFAS exposure. Unfortunately, regulation remains slow and the chemicals remain ubiquitous.

What are PFAS?

PFAS stands for per- and polyfluoralkyl substances, and encompass a group of about 15,000 chemical compounds. While specific chemical composition varies from compound to compound, all PFAS containa at least two carbon-fluorine bonds.

A carbon-fluorine bond is incredibly strong, making PFAS very non-degradable. This is why they’re commonly called ‘forever chemicals’ – scientists say they can take hundreds or even thousands of years to degrade.

That same property is also what makes them so widely used: PFAS are resistant to water, oil, and heat, and also act as ‘surfactants’ – meaning they help different liquid types mix.

As a result, they’re found in a very broad range of products: stain-resistant textiles (think workout gear to mattresses), food packaging (takeout containers), cookware (non-stick pans), and cosmetics. They’re also widespread in aerospace, automotive, construction and electronics industries, and create highly effective firefighting foams.

Due to this ubiquity, ‘forever chemicals’ now permeate our planet’s soil, water, and air; they are practically impossible to avoid.

Studies have shown excessively high PFAS levels in sea spray, Arctic ice, penguin eggs, 95% of UK strawberries, and the vast majority of ‘sludge’ commonly used as fertiliser on farms.

The Environmental Protection Agency in America acknowledges the risk of PFAS-contaminated sludge, but has done little to mitigate it, allowing it to be spread on farms as fertiliser.

Today, just like microplastics, they’re in our bodies too: one CDC report found 97% of Americans have ‘forever chemicals’ in their bloodstreams.

What are the health consequences of PFAS exposure?

Studying the effects of PFAS exposure is made difficult by a couple of factors: firstly, there are thousands of variations of ‘forever chemicals’, and secondly, in many countries companies do not have to disclose their use of PFAS.

Still, scientific studies have identified connections between PFAS exposure and reduced immune function, altered metabolism, hormonal disorders, increased risk of some cancers, liver and kidney diseases, and reproductive consequences.

Recently, researchers conducting a study in Italy were able to formally show for the first time that exposure to PFAS increases the likelihood of death by cardiovascular disease. Comparing individuals living in the Veneto region of north Italy who drank PFAS-contaminated water with those that didn’t, results “showed clearly” that earlier life exposure led to higher mortality levels.

The study also found “very clear” evidence of a jump in kidney cancer among exposed groups, according to lead researcher Annibale Biggeri.

Research suggesting highly concerning and serious health effects of PFAS exposure is well-established, and has been for many years. As a result, three of the most dangerous ‘forever chemicals’ – PFOA, PFOS and PFHxS – are banned under the Stockholm Convention of the 2000s.

Australia ratified the Convention in 2004. However, while official government information recognises that maintains “reviews and scientific research to date have provided fairly consistent reports of an association with several health effects”, it insists that “limited to no evidence of human disease or other clinical significant harm resulting from PFAS exposure at this time.”

Despite the slow pace of state regulation of ‘forever chemicals’ given the high risks, many companies have taken strides to stop their use of ‘forever chemicals’, including Benneton, Zara, Uniqlo, H&M, Adidas and Reebok.

Cover photo by Vedrana Filipović on Unsplash.

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