written by: Richard Boch
What Is PFAS: Should We Be Concerned?
Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are industrial chemicals that have been used for a variety of consumer products and industrial processes. These compounds can be found in your home largely because of their use as fire retardants, anti-stain guards, water repellants, and non-stick surfaces. They were produced on an industrial scale by many companies over time – including DuPont and 3M.
Unfortunately, poor management practices led to their release into the environment without much thought about what would happen to them.
In recent years there has been increased concern regarding these persistent environmental contaminants because they build up in fatty tissues when humans consume or inhale them. They also accumulate in fish and wildlife which causes a food safety problem for people who eat them. This is especially concerning because these chemicals have been linked with cancer, thyroid disease, hormone disruption, reduced immunity, and birth defects.
With the phase out of PFAS, industries have shifted production towards shorter chain length PFSAs and PFCAs. Other replacement chemicals include perfluoroalkyl ether acids, which are collectively referred to as GenX. Although not certain, these alternatives are assumed to be safer and less toxic.
If you are asking yourself – What is PFAS, then continue reading for the answer to this question and a lot more.
What is PFAS
Perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances are a class of man-made chemicals that have been widely used by industry since the 1950s. They are currently used to make a wide range of consumer and industrial products that are chemically inert, resistant to heat, and stain and water repellent. These chemicals are also used in the manufacture of other chemicals that are then used to make products for household and commercial use.
PFAS are a group of chemicals made by humans that include:
- PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid)
- PFOS (perfluorooctane sulfonic acid)
- PFBS (perfluorobutane sulfonic acid)
- Perfluorononanoic acid (PFNA)
- Perfluorodecanoic acid (PFDA)
- Perfluoroundecanoic acid (PFUnA)
- Perfluorododecanoic acid (PFDoA)
- Perfluoroheptanoic acid (PFHpA)
- Perfluorohexanoic acid (PFHxA)
- Perfluorobutane sulfonic acid (PFBS)
- Perfluoropentanoic acid (PFPeA)
- Perfluoroheptane sulfonic acid (PFHpS)
- Perfluorohexane sulfonic acid (PFHxS)
- Perfluorooctane sulfonamide (PFOSA)
- Perfluorohexane sulfonamide (PFHxSA)
- Perfluoroheptane sulfonamide (PFHpSA)
- Perfluorooctane sulfonyl fluoride (POSF)
- Perfluorodecane sulfonate (PFDS)
- Perfluorododecane sulfonate (PFDoS)
- Perfluorobutanoic acid (PFBA)
- Perfluoropentanoic sulfonic acid (PFPeS)
PFAS are found in people, wildlife and fish all over the world. Some PFAS do not break down easily and therefore stay in the environment for a very long time, especially in water. Some PFAS can stay in people’s bodies for a long time.
Problems with PFAS Contamination
These chemicals are problematic because they:
- persist (do not degrade or breakdown) in the environment
- are mobile in the subsurface and can pollute drinking water
- bioaccumulate (build up) in humans and other wildlife
- are highly toxic fluorinated chemicals
PFAS contamination has been found in rivers and lakes and in many types of animals on land and in the water.
If you’re worried about PFAS in your home’s drinking water, you may want to test it. One of the easiest ways to do this is the PFAS Water Test from SimpleLab. This test looks for 14 PFAS compounds including PFOA and PFOS. I tested my tap water and found that I have low levels of PFAS.
Forever Chemicals and PFAS Exposure
PFAS chemicals are known as “forever chemicals” because they accumulate in our bodies and remain for an indefinite period are they are extremely persistent in the environment.
These polyfluoroalkyl substances all share common traits — the signature element being fluorine with carbon attached at its end— and this atomic bond makes it difficult for these substances break down into harmless elements or individual molecules. These substances are not easy to break down because they possess strong bonds between fluorine and carbon. It is this bond that makes PFAS molecules resistant to heat, moisture, and stains. This chemical structure makes it extremely difficult for natural environmental degradation or your bodies purification processes to break them down.
There has been a lot of research about the potential adverse health impacts associated with PFAS exposure, including liver damage and thyroid disease.
One study found that females were at higher risk than males for these conditions but other studies have not confirmed this trend yet or found inconsistent results among population groups such as pregnant women or children living in homes built before 2000 when it came time to install new water pipes made from plastic rain gutters (which can contain up 100 times more chemicals).
According to the EPA, these chemicals are everywhere. They can migrate into the air, dust, food and water. People are also at risk for exposure through industrial manufacturing processes or by consuming food that is wrapped or stored in packaging that contains PFAS chemicals.
Chemistry of PFAS Compounds
PFAS is not one molecule. Rather, it is a group of thousands of compounds. Some of the chemicals included in PFAS are:
- PFOA: Perfluorooctanoic acid — also known as C8 — is a perfluorinated carboxylic acid produced and used worldwide in many chemical processes and as a material feedstock. It has been linked with health risks like cancers when consumed at high levels over time due its persistence in food chains.
- PFOS: Perfluorooctanesulfonic acid, or PFOS for short, is an anthropogenic fluorosurfactant. It’s what makes Scotchgard so effective at repelling stains and protecting your fabric from stains. It has been classified as a Likely Human Carcinogen by California’s Proposition 65 system since 2008 due its suspected links with cancer risks among workers exposed occupationally.
- GenX: The GenX technology was developed to make high performance fluoropolymers which are used in some nonstick coatings. The major chemicals associated with this process are HFPO dimer acid and its ammonium salt – these two are used for creating PFOA free versions of certain products.
- PFBS: Perfluorobutane sulfonic acid (PFBS) has been used as a replacement chemical for perfluorosulfonate compounds. PFBS has been detected in drinking water, wastewater, and consumer products such as floor wax, carpets cleaners or even your clothes.
The fluorinated part of the molecule is what makes this class of substances effective as a stain repellant or a nonstick coating, and it also serves to make them more water soluble than expected based on their chemical structure. These functional groups further segregate compounds within PFAS family tree; some show up in fire suppressants while others act like detergents for dirt clogging your sink drain.
PFAS Contamination and Its Health Effects
Do the most toxic and bioaccumulative chemicals travel far in the environment?
Information provided by the U.S. EPA indicates that this statement is accurate. But this is not the case with PFAS.
It turns out that these compounds are soluble due to their functional groups – which means they are often very mobile in the subsurface. This often causes confusion because we expect them to behave similarly to other toxic substances like polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) or dioxin.
PFAS compounds have been shown to migrate widely via groundwater and could end up in places far from where you would expect them – like a drinking water aquifer for example.
This means that these types of bioaccumulative toxins present unique risks when trying clean up after spills or accidents because there are many different pathways by which people might be exposed to them. The environmental health of our communities is at risk from these toxic compounds.
Health Effects of PFAS
What are the health effects of PFAS? According to the CDC, the main human health concerns are:
- Increased cholesterol levels
- Thyroid disease
- Decreased fertility
- Weakened immune system
- Some types of cancer, such as kidney and testicular cancer
It’s important to note that the severity of these health effects can vary depending on the level and duration of PFAS exposure. However, it’s generally a good idea to limit exposure to PFAS as much as possible to reduce the risk of negative health effects.
Where is PFAS Found
PFAS compounds are found in a variety of places. These include:
- Consumer products
- Drinking water (tap and bottled water)
- Household products
- Fish and wildlife
- Rivers, lakes, streams, and oceans
In general, these molecules are found in consumer products, our food and water, and our bodies.
Read my article about what products contain PFAS for a detailed discussion.
1 Consumer products
The use of toxic PFAS “forever chemicals” in cosmetics was discovered in a new study – toxic compounds have been used for years and can be found across many brands including lip balm or nail polish to makeup products like lipstick. The peer reviewed article revealed high levels among 231 samples analyzed from North America with organic fluorine as an indicator suggesting they contain one type – perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) rather than others such as fluoro-octaneulfonic acid (FOS).
Consumer products that are known to contain PFAS include:
- Nonstick cookware
- Food packaging, especially grease-resistant packaging
- Stain-resistant coatings used on upholstery, carpets and other fabrics
- Water-proof clothing
- Cleaning products
- Personal care products (shampoo, dental floss)
- Cosmetics (nail polish, eye makeup)
- Paints, varnishes, and sealants
2 Drinking water
PFAS has been detected in public water supplies and private drinking water wells in the United States. Concentrations of perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) in drinking water have been detected across the country.
Typically, these exceedances are restricted and connected with a particular facility such as a manufacturer, landfill, wastewater treatment plant, or firefighting training center. More testing is required to evaluate the full extent of this problem.
You might ingest PFAS by eating foods that were packaged in materials made from it. This includes many fast food containers and wrappers, pizza boxes, microwave popcorn bags, candy wrappers, and grease-resistant paper.
It is difficult to know which brands of food or which types of packaging are problematic. Currently, there are no federal or state regulations requiring manufacturers to notify you about the presence of these compounds.
4 Household products
Many items in your home are either made from materials that contain PFAS or are coated with PFAS-containing compounds. Items in your home that might expose you to forever molecules include:
- Stain resistant carpets and rugs
- Furniture upholstery
- Paints, varnishes, and sealants
5 Fish and wildlife
PFAS can accumulate in the bodies of animals over time. When people eat fish or hunt wildlife that have been exposed to these contaminants, they can be exposed to this chemical as well.
Scientists are studying the effects of PFAS on fish and wildlife, as well as how it can impact the health of people who consume these animals. It’s important to be mindful of this potential source of exposure to PFAS, and to be cautious when consuming fish and wildlife that may have been exposed to this chemical.
Read my articles about PFAS in our food:
Does Salmon Have PFAS in it? What Are Your Risks?
Do Shrimp Have PFAS In Them? Shocking Answers
Does Cod Fish Have PFAS in it? A Look at the Science
Does Tilapia Have PFAS in It? What You Need to Know
6 Rivers, lakes, streams, and oceans
PFAS can be found in rivers, lakes, streams, and oceans because they are widely released into the environment. When these chemicals are released into waterways, they can travel long distances and become widely dispersed.
PFAS can remain in water for a long time, and fish and other wildlife that live in these bodies of water can become exposed to it. This can potentially impact the health of these animals, as well as the people who consume them.
What does NIEHS say about PFAS?
The NIEHS has found that PFAS can be harmful to our health, especially if we are exposed to it for a long time. Some of the health problems that PFAS can cause include things like high cholesterol, problems with our immune system, and even some types of cancer.
What are the major health issues with PFAS?
Exposure to PFAS can lead to high cholesterol, thyroid disease, decreased fertility, weakened immune system, and some types of cancer such as kidney and testicular cancer. These health issues can be especially concerning for people who have been exposed to PFAS for a long time or at high levels.
PFAS are a group of synthetic chemicals that have been widely used in a variety of consumer and industrial products. However, these substances have been linked to a number of negative health effects, including high cholesterol, thyroid disease, decreased fertility, weakened immune system, and certain types of cancer.
PFAS can be found in many different places in the environment, including in waterways, fish, and wildlife. As such, it’s important to be mindful of potential exposure to PFAS and to take steps to limit exposure whenever possible. More research is needed to fully understand the health impacts of PFAS, but in the meantime, it’s important to be cautious with products that may contain this chemical.
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