Forever chemicals: The threat of PFAS pollution explained

The threat posed by forever chemicals
Ubiquitous ‘forever chemicals’ threaten not just your health, but the very fabric of life across the globe.

The omnipresence of ‘forever chemicals’ — specifically per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances — in our environment, including drinking water sources, sea foam, rain, groundwater, sea ice, and even human blood poses a significant and escalating global health concern. These chemicals, valued for their waterproofing properties, are found in a wide array of products, from Teflon pans and medical devices to cosmetics and pizza boxes. However, their persistence and potential health risks, including links to cancers, birth defects, and immune system impairments, have spurred increasing efforts to detect, remove, and destroy them.

Nijhuis Saur industries, a leader in developing technologies for treating PFAS, has created over 80 technologies targeting banned or restricted PFAS such as PFOS, PFOA, and PFHxS. Toxin experts emphasise the resilience and ubiquity of these chemicals, noting their minuscule concentrations and their ability to persist indefinitely in the environment.

Global regulations and standards for PFAS levels vary considerably, complicating the battle against their spread. In the UK, the guideline for individual PFAS in drinking water is set at 100 nanograms per litre, while the Dutch public health institute RIVM advises a much lower maximum of 4.4ng/l. The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has proposed limits for six PFAS chemicals in its toxicity index. Researchers are worried about the lack of a consistent global approach and standard testing protocols, as well as the rapidly increasing number of PFAS which has grown from a few to over 14,000.

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The threat of forever chemicals

The widespread presence of PFAS is not just a health concern; it is a significant economic burden. Cleaning up contaminated water supplies, replacing PFAS-laden infrastructure, and managing the long-term health consequences cost billions globally. Underserved communities often bear the brunt of these costs, facing higher water bills and limited access to safe drinking water. The financial implications add another layer of urgency to the PFAS crisis, demanding not just environmental and health solutions but also economic justice and equitable distribution of resources for remediation and prevention.

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The Forever Pollution Project, comprising journalists and academics, identifies over 2,100 sites in Europe as PFAS hotspots, a testament to the widespread nature of this problem. Settlements in recent lawsuits, such as those involving Chemours, DuPont, and Corteva in the United States, indicate a growing legal acknowledgment of the issue. Nonetheless, these financial settlements do little to simplify the complex process of PFAS remediation.

Treatment methods

Current treatment methods for PFAS vary based on the chemical structure of the pollutants and the desired outcome—whether to separate them from water or to destroy them altogether. Technologies like nanofiltration, reverse osmosis, granular activated carbon filtration, and advanced coagulation are employed, each with its own set of challenges and limitations. High-temperature incineration, electrochemical oxidation, and supercritical water oxidation are among the options for destroying concentrated PFAS waste, but these methods are costly and require specialised equipment and expertise.

Innovative approaches are in development, such as the ultrasound method, sonolysis, researched by Dr. Madeleine Bussemaker from the University of Surrey. This method aims to degrade the strong carbon-fluorine bonds of PFAS into less harmful compounds, but scaling up these solutions for widespread application remains a challenge.

The reach of PFAS extends far beyond our dinner plates. These chemicals bioaccumulate in the food chain, concentrating in the tissues of fish, birds, and even apex predators. Studies have documented PFAS affecting wildlife reproduction, immune function, and even survival. The contamination does not stop at individual organisms; it disrupts entire ecosystems, impacting food webs and ecological balances. Recognising the environmental consequences of PFAS contamination underscores the need for a holistic approach that safeguards not just human health but the health of the planet.

The persistence of PFAS in the environment and their potential health impacts demand a multifaceted response involving funding, legislation, and global awareness. The urgency of this issue is underlined by studies revealing the near-ubiquity of PFAS in human blood samples. As research continues to uncover the extent of PFAS contamination and its health implications, the call for a concerted global effort to address this crisis grows ever louder.

While global efforts and technological advancements are crucial in tackling the PFAS crisis, individual action can also play a significant role. By making informed choices about the products, we buy and the way we dispose of them, we can collectively reduce our PFAS footprint. Supporting PFAS-free alternatives, advocating for stricter regulations, and spreading awareness about this issue can create a ripple effect of change. Remember, every action, however small, contributes to a cleaner and healthier future for ourselves, our communities, and the planet we share.