PFAS in the Environment and Health

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PFAS in the Environment and Health

Bloomberg and several other news organizations have recently written investigative articles about polyfluoroalkyl or perfluoroalkyl (PFAS). If this is a new topic for you have come upon, we thought you’d need some background information. The following article provides you with a guide about this class of chemicals.

When you first start reading, you might think PFAS are a newly discovered environmental threat. It’s not. In fact, you’re probably more familiar with it than you realize:

  • You’ve heard them called by a different names.
  • You, your family and your companion pets have been exposed to them for years.

Glossary

  • PFAS – The chemical name is polyfluoroalkyl or perfluoroalkyl. PFAS is a class of manmade chemicals and encompasses approximately 4,700 different compounds.
  • PFOA – Perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) is a type of PFAS.
  • PFOS – Perfluorooctane sulfonic acid (PFOS) is another specific chemical under the PFAS umbrella.
  • PFC – An acronym for another set of chemicals that stands for either perfluorinated chemicals, or a subset of that called perfluorocarbons. You are probably familiar with this term.

How You’ve Heard of PFAS

Scientists, governments and non-government organizations used to use, and sometimes still do use, the term “perfluorinated chemicals” (PFC) to refer to many of the PFAS chemicals.

This reference makes sense because the subset of “perfluorinated chemicals”, perfluorocarbons, are closely related to PFAS and they share many common features. However, the two are different.

In regards to PFC, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) states:

“Perfluorocarbons are not toxic, and there are no direct health effects associated with exposures to them. However, perfluorocarbons are among the most potent and longest-lasting type of greenhouse gases emitted by human activities; the chief impact of environmental concern is global climate change.”

How You May Have Been Exposed to PFAS

  • Food packaging like microwave popcorn bags
  • Electronics
  • Fabric
  • Furniture
  • Carpeting
  • Clothing
  • Non-stick cookware
  • Fire-fighting foam
  • Plants
  • Drinking water

What Makes PFAS So Great

Depending on the particular PFAS chemical, it can:

  • Resist stains
  • Repel water
  • Resist heat
  • Retard flames
  • Resist sticking

Why PFAS Are Really Not So Great

Because of all of the great characteristics of PFAS, many of the known 4,700 PFAS do not break down in the environment and can actually bioaccumulate in the body.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) states certain PFAS like PFOA and PFOS can:

  • Affect growth, learning, and behavior of infants and older children
  • Lower a woman’s chance of getting pregnant
  • Interfere with the body’s natural hormones
  • Increase cholesterol levels
  • Affect the immune system
  • Increase the risk of cancer

Remember, the CDC does not implicate all PFAS, but does not give them the all clear either. Rather, the CDC says, “Scientists are still learning about the health effects of exposures to mixtures of PFAS.”

PFOA and PFOS in Particular

The two most commonly known and researched PFAS are PFOA and PFOS. You’ll definitely be familiar with the products they were used in.

PFOA was used to make DuPont’s Teflon, which made cookware non-stick. PFOS was an ingredient used in 3M’s Scotchgard, a stain and water-repellant product.

The PFOA Stewardship Program was started in 2006 under the Bush Administration, the EPA worked with companies to phase out the manufacture and use of PFOA by 2015 in the United States.

What about PFOS? The EPA probably found it unnecessary since PFOS was not reported as manufactured in, or imported to, the United States when the PFOA program was started.

So, is the threat over from PFOS and PFOA? Unfortunately, no. The United States Department of Defense began using a firefighting foam in the 1970’s that contained PFOS. Some of the Defense Department’s formulations possibly also contained PFOA. Now, the PFOS remnants of these foams are seeping into groundwater and drinking water resources of communities near military bases or installations. Further, please remember that these same chemicals leached from the industrial plants that made them.

For example, the Detroit Free Press reported that the EPA’s health advisory level in drinking water for PFOS and PFOA is 70 parts per trillion. Some drinking waters in the state have tested as high as 76,000 parts per trillion. Michigan may have more than 11,000 sites contaminated with PFOA and PFOS from both the military and industrial sectors.

Are there any other loopholes? Yes. Although PFOA and PFOS are no longer manufactured in the United States, they are still produced internationally and can be imported into the United States in consumer goods.

The EPA of the current administration supports industry, but the heightened awareness about this issue prompted the agency to host a summit in 2018 that so far has resulted in more plans but no action. So, cities and states are now taking it upon themselves to ban products that contain PFOS, PFOA and other PFAS compounds. Lawsuits against DuPont and 3M have also ensued. For instance, the State of Minnesota sued 3M for contaminating groundwater with PFAS compounds. The two settled with $850 million going to the state in 2018.

What About Other PFAS?

Bear in mind that Scotchgard and Teflon are still in existence today. However, the companies needed to replace PFOA and PFOS. So, they now are using other PFAS or some other chemicals. In fact, Consumer Reports states that, “Consumer Reports’ cookware ratings indicate when nonstick cookware is PFOA-free, but these nonstick items—unlike stainless steel or cast iron cookware – probably contain other PFAS chemicals.”

Industry representatives maintain that the newer PFAS are safer because the chemical chains are not as long.

However, experts on the other side disagree. They rightly maintain that we need the long-term data of chronic exposure to know for sure if the newer PFAS are safer. Indeed, the EPA has stated that human livers are sensitive to another PFAS, called PFBS. Additionally, the new GenX chemicals considered safer and replacements to PFOA and PFOS can affect the kidney and thyroid. This is still a ‘buyer beware’ situation!

References

“Basic Information on PFAS.” Environmental Protection Agency, 6 Dec. 2018, http://www.epa.gov/pfas/basic-information-pfas.

Benesh, Melanie. “Mapping PFAS Chemical Contamination at 106 U.S. Military Sites.” Environmental Working Group, 6 Mar. 2019, http://www.ewg.org/research/pfas-chemicals-contaminate-us-military-sites.

“Fact Sheet: 2010/2015 PFOA Stewardship Program.” Environmental Protection Agency, 9 Aug. 2018, http://www.epa.gov/assessing-and-managing-chemicals-under-tsca/fact-sheet-20102015-pfoa-stewardship-program.

Lerner, Sharon. “3M Knew About the Dangers of PFOA and PFOS Decades Ago, Internal Documents Show.” The Intercept, 31 July 2018, http://www.theintercept.com/2018/07/31/3m-pfas-minnesota-pfoa-pfos/.

“Perfluorooctanesulfonic Acid.” National Center for Biotechnology Information – PubChem, U.S. National Library of Medicine, http://pubchem.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/compound/Perfluorooctanesulfonic_acid.

“PFAS Health Effects.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 10 Jan. 2018, http://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/pfas/health-effects.html.

“What Are PFCs and How Do They Relate to Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFASs)?” Environmental Protection Agency, 3 May 2019, http://www.epa.gov/pfas/what-are-pfcs-and-how-do-they-relate-and-polyfluoroalkyl-substances-pfass.

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