What are these dreaded “forever chemicals” and why are they building up in our bodies causing cancers, diabetes, hormonal changes, and scores of other health and developmental issues? You won’t like what you’re about to read.
A class of chemical compounds called per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are slowly piling up all around us and inside us as a result of various human activities. Based on almost indestructible carbon-fluorine bonds, these toxic substances have earned the nickname of “forever chemicals”, due to the fact that they can persist in the environment for decades.
Recently, a striking new review article claimed that there is virtually no place on this planet where rainwater would be still safe to drink in terms of PFAS levels accepted under US Environmental Protection Agency’s guidelines. No. Place. On. This. Planet. Not even Antarctica or Tibet. Rainwater is contaminated with these compounds absolutely everywhere.
If rainwater is contaminated, all our fruits and vegetables will host a fair share of “forever chemicals” themselves. If fruits and vegetables are contaminated – you guessed – most of our farm animals will also be contaminated. Fish and seafood, too. And, ultimately, the PFAS will reach us, humans, at the top of the food chain. Yes, vegans and meat-eaters together. We all drink water and eat something. Something containing a juicy, toxic cocktail of PFAS.
So, how dangerous are these PFAS, anyway?
Let’s quote the European Chemicals Agency first: “Certain PFASs are toxic for reproduction and can harm the development of foetuses. Several PFASs may cause cancer in humans. Some PFASs are also suspected of interfering with the human endocrine (hormonal) system.”
Then let’s move to EPA, who says even more explicit that “Current peer-reviewed scientific studies have shown that exposure to certain levels of PFAS may lead to:”
- Reproductive effects such as decreased fertility or increased high blood pressure in pregnant women.
- Developmental effects or delays in children, including low birth weight, accelerated puberty, bone variations, or behavioral changes.
- Increased risk of some cancers, including prostate, kidney, and testicular cancers.
- Reduced ability of the body’s immune system to fight infections, including reduced vaccine response.
- Interference with the body’s natural hormones.
- Increased cholesterol levels and/or risk of obesity.
One recent study in Southern California went a step further, trying to find a correlation between PFAS exposure and cancers. The researchers followed more than 200,000 residents of Los Angeles and Hawaii to identify 50 of them who developed cancer and compared their blood samples taken before the cancer diagnosis with 50 people who didn’t develop cancer during the same study. They discovered that the strongest link was between PFAS and liver cancer. People in the top 10% of PFAS exposure were 4.5 times more likely to develop liver cancer than those with the lowest blood levels of PFAS. Ouch!
Who make PFAS and why?
Well, there are literally thousands of PFAS. These “forever chemicals” can be gases, liquids, or solids. Many of them work as water and grease repellents, for instance as non-stick coatings in cookware or treatments in prepackaged food. But they can also be found in aerospace, automotive, textiles, leather and apparel industries, in household products, electronics, cosmetics, and even medical products.
And let’s not forget the drinking water. In the US, EPA has not yet enforced limits on the levels of PFAS in drinking water, but merely issues health advisories.
The entire food-chain is also one of the main sources of exposure to PFAS. The chemicals might come from the food itself or from the packaging it comes in. The FDA has allowed certain PFAS to be used on paper or paperboard in food packaging in order to prevent grease from going through them. Thirdly, some cookware are still using PFAS-based coatings for their non-stick surfaces, which can be ingested when even minor scratches occur.
Finally, some good news
It took a while, but scientist recently figured it out how to degrade the “forever chemicals” way faster than they would naturally degrade. Not all of the PFAS, but it’s a novel chemical mechanism and studies are being made as we speak to identify what exact compounds can be effectively treated with this new method.
For the geeks in our audience, it was all about heating PFAS samples to between 80 and 120 °C (176 and 248 °F) in dimethyl sulfoxide as a solvent and sodium hydroxide as a reagent. This removes charged groups of atoms at the end of the molecules, in a process that cascades the tail in other reactions that start spitting out fluorine atoms to form fluoride, which is the safest form of fluorine. Forever no more!
Of course, by this method, we will be able to remove most of the PFAS from garbage dumps and other places, if enough political will and financial might will be poured into this idea. But our bodies will still have to deal with the already accumulated quantities of these compounds. For obvious reasons, we can’t take hot baths of dimethyl sulfoxide and sodium hydroxide. Until an in vivo solution
can will be found, we owe it to ourselves to limit our exposure to PFAS.
- use PFAS-free cookware and, generally speaking, PFAS-free household products (including cosmetics and hygiene items, for instance)
- carefully read the labels on your food packages, buy more fresh products, and store them in PFAS-free recipients
- check or ask your local authorities to check your tap water for PFAS levels or switch to PFAS-free bottled water