Forever with us: the problem with PFAS

30th March 2023

As PFAS seep into the public consciousness (and bloodstream), Chris Seekings reports on what’s being done to regulate them

In January this year, five European countries submitted a proposal to restrict the production of around 10,000 per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) – also known as ‘forever chemicals’.

These substances are in almost everything, from popcorn bags to polar bears, and accumulate in waterways, soil, plants, animals and people in perpetuity once they enter the environment.

They are typically manufactured for use in food packaging, non-stick cookware, textiles, cosmetics and electronics due to their ability to repel both grease and water, and can now be found in almost all of our bloodstreams.

Alarmingly, a growing body of evidence is linking PFAS with numerous health concerns, from cancer, immune system disorders, fertility issues and obesity, to growth, learning and behavioural problems.

“But we have only been looking at them for around 20 years, so we haven’t had the timescale to examine them more individually because there are so many of them,” says Dr Clare Cavers, who manages environmental charity Fidra’s PFASfree project. “That’s why there’s been more and more calls for them to be restricted as a group. There’s also a lack of methodology to detect them in the first place.”

What was once considered a “miracle chemical” may have unleashed a devastating environmental and health crisis upon the world that will take an untold amount of time to clean up and recover from.

An unfortunate accident

PFAS were discovered accidentally by the American chemist Roy Plunkett while he was working for the chemical company DuPont in 1938. This gave birth to Teflon – a kind of plastic sprayed on various items and baked to create a non-stick, waterproof, non-corrosive, and non-reactive surface.

Even back then, there is evidence to suggest that manufacturers were aware of the dangers, and covered them up.

Fast forward to 2023, and PFAS can be found in the blood of most humans, and in animals on every continent bar Antarctica, according to a recent study. But despite the ubiquitous nature of these chemicals, our knowledge of them is still relatively limited.

“The more we learn about them, the more the need to restrict them entering the environment is apparent,” explains Dr Emma Pemberton, principal environmental chemist at Ricardo, and a former evidence advisor at the Environment Agency. “But in some sense, the damage is almost done, and it is a significant challenge to attempt to clean up the environmental contamination.”

“PFAS can be found in the blood of most humans, and in animals on every continent bar Antarctica”

The European Chemicals Agency last month began a six-month consultation on the recent proposals from five countries to restrict PFAS under REACH regulations, while the UK is set to announce its own proposals imminently.

In the US, however, restrictions on PFAs are already well under way, and public awareness far more widespread.

The awakening

Ask an American or Scandinavian about PFAS, and they will be much more likely to know about the dangers than a typical European. One of the reasons for this is the way they source water. “A lot of their drinking water is sourced from borehole sites and standing water sites that have been near airfields or industrial areas, which have accumulated these chemicals to quite high levels,” Dr Cavers explains. “That drinking water has been found to cause cancer clusters and other diseases, which has drawn a lot of attention to PFAS.”

In 2019, the CEO of American Water Works, Susan Story, described PFAS drinking water contamination as “one of the biggest emerging issues that will need to be addressed across the country”. Research by the Environmental Working Group in the US has since estimated that 200 million Americans have tap water contaminated with dangerous levels of PFOA and PFOS – which are the most heavily restricted or banned types of PFAS.

Drinking water in the UK and Europe is seemingly less likely to be contaminated than in the US, although there has been limited testing. “We’ve got a really robust system in England, based on assessing risks to water supplies and carrying out remedial work before there is any impact on consumers. Water companies are required to make sure that doesn’t happen,” a Drinking Water Inspectorate (DWI) spokesperson, tells me. “Our drinking water is among the best in the world and people should trust it.”

Higher levels of PFAS have been found in drinking water in the islands of Jersey and Guernsey, which take a different approach to the UK, and do extract water from boreholes.

Diverging regulations

PFAS also enter the environment through non-commercial means. In fact, firefighting foams are one of the main sources of contamination in soils and waterways, and it was only after an aircraft crash in the 1960s that this application became known.

However, laws and regulations restricting the sale and distribution of products containing PFAS – including carpets and rugs, fabric treatments, and oil and gas products – came into effect in more than half a dozen US states at the start of this year.

The US Environmental Protection Agency has set limits of PFAS in drinking water to virtually zero, while 3M – the largest manufacturer of the substances – has announced that it will stop producing forever chemicals by the end of 2025. The Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants also aims to restrict the production and use of “toxic chemicals of global concern”, and currently lists PFOS and PFOA among such substances.

But despite the global challenge of PFAS, and scientists working with the same data from around the world, regulations diverge. In the UK, only a few are restricted. “And if a company produces them as a byproduct, something that breaks down in the environment, that’s not restricted, that’s perfectly fine,” Dr Cavers says. “Then if a chemical is restricted, manufacturers will tweak it slightly, and it ends up being potentially just as dangerous when it breaks down. There is a big gap in regulation.”

Since Brexit, the European Food Standards Agency has cut its tolerable limit of PFAS in drinking water to no more than 2.2ng/l (nanograms per litre). The limit in England and Wales is 100ng/l, but the DWI insists the UK is not lagging behind Europe, highlighting how the EU’s Drinking Water Directive also has a limit of 100ng/l.

“We’re setting up a standards board of experts to guide us going forward because we’re not in Europe any more, so we can take back control and make our own decisions,” says the DWI spokesperson.

“We’re not falling behind, and we’ll make our recommendations based on the best available scientific information and WHO guidelines, tailored slightly more to what we need in England and Wales than other parts of Europe.”

An unavoidable danger?

As with plastic waste, the genie is out of the bottle with PFAS, and it will be nigh on impossible to put it back in.

“I was thinking about trying to eliminate PFAS from my lifestyle, and I don’t think I could,” says Dr Pemberton. “I don’t use non-stick saucepans, but PFAS are in cosmetics, clothing and food containers. It’s hard because they’ve got very useful chemistries.”

The usefulness of these chemicals is what prevents more being done to restrict them – just like plastic products. “Clearly they are very widespread and useful chemicals in certain applications, which is why they present a challenge to government generally on how to regulate their use,” says the DWI spokesperson. “We need to work towards a more holistic approach to how chemicals are developed, understanding toxicity, relative persistence versus degradation in the environment, and restricting future use where the evidence supports controls.”

“The usefulness of these chemicals is what prevents more being done to restrict them – just like plastic products”

However, there are steps that we can take to avoid these substances, and everyone I talk to with a relatively deep understanding of them, does. There are companies that now manufacture PFAS-free products – from stainless steel to furniture – and some brands are now developing specific policies for forever chemicals.

Dr Cavers recommends the “olive oil test”: if a drop forms a perfect bead when placed on packaging, there may be PFAS in the material. However, she says it is counterproductive to target PFAS at the expense of other environmental concerns. “We have a bit of a conflict between not wanting people to throw things away that are so useful, and managing the other risks,” she continues. “Our advice, which might change, is to avoid buying products containing these chemicals, if you can.”

However, the widespread use, lack of understanding, and easy-to-manipulate chemistry, makes them almost possible to avoid. The DWI spokesperson notes: “In general, the lesson is that it’s a good idea not to put things into the environment until you better understand what’s going to happen to them.”

Image credit: Shutterstock

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