PFAS Contaminants: Where They Came From, Why They Persist & What We Can Do

PFAS Contaminants: Where They Came From, Why They Persist & What We Can Do

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The chemical group known as PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances) — extra popularly called “forever chemicals” — is quickly evolving into considered one of humanity’s most extreme environmental crises. Found in soil, water, air, vegetation, and animals all over the place throughout the globe and tainting the blood of nearly all Americans, PFAS are linked to a number of human illnesses, together with most cancers.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) believes two particular PFAS compounds, PFOA and PFOS, are poisonous sufficient that the company not too long ago lowered its secure ingesting water well being advisories for the compounds to ranges trendy environmental laboratories can not detect. The company additionally revealed a equally low well being advisory for Gen-X, a more recent PFAS compound created as a “secure” alternative for PFOA.

And prefer it or not, should you drank a glass of water at present, you most likely ingested some PFAS, too, even when your water was filtered.

So, the place did this downside come from, and the way did it get this unhealthy? More importantly, what may be accomplished about it?

What Are PFAS?

PFAS are a various group of manufactured chemical compounds numbering within the 1000’s, broadly utilized in industrial manufacturing, starting within the late Forties. All PFAS molecules are comprised of carbon and fluorine atoms.

3D model of PFOA -- a toxic PFAS compound -- in its acid form
3D mannequin of PFOA in its acid kind. The EPA has issued ingesting water well being advisories for PFOA and PFOS, that are each PFAS compounds.

The carbon-fluorine bond construction imparts distinctive properties to the molecules, resembling water and stain repellence, which may be modified in some ways for industrial makes use of. Although PFOA and PFAS have principally been phased out, new chemistries have been developed to take their place. Coined by some as a recreation of chemical “whack-a-mole,” the result’s that many PFAS remain in many manufacturing supply chains. Industries/purposes which have used PFAS of their manufacturing processes embrace:

  • Plastics manufacturing
  • Petrochemical refining
  • Metal ending (e.g., chrome plating)
  • Pulp and paper manufacturing
  • Fire suppressing supplies (foams) and firefighting gear
  • Pulp and paper manufacturing
  • Textiles and carpeting
  • Pesticides
  • Semi-conductors
  • Pharmaceuticals
  • Cosmetics
  • Renewable power and communications (Li-ion batteries, electrical automobiles, cellphones, tablets)
  • And many others

In brief, we contact or are surrounded by PFAS constantly, leading to more than 98% of Americans with PFAS in their blood.

Where Did PFAS Come From? (A Brief Origin Story)

In 1938, a chemist working in a New Jersey Dupont lab “found” tetrafluoroethylene whereas trying to make a brand new, “safer” chlorofluorocarbon-based refrigerant. Its non-stick, chemical- and thermal-resistant properties have been shortly acknowledged throughout follow-up testing, and shortly after, the mysterious, slippery substance referred to as Teflon was born.

Teflon was initially used to assist U.S. World War II efforts. Teflon’s navy makes use of included: gaskets and coating valves/seals in plutonium manufacturing and uranium enrichment, the nostril cones of bombs to deflect radar, lining gasoline tanks, and making explosives.

Following WW II, Teflon started to be integrated into industrial merchandise. A brand new plastics plant in Parkersburg, WV, was constructed to assist this effort. Significant PFOA contamination found close to the plant resulting in the 2017 class motion lawsuit settlement of $672 million was the topic of the 2018 documentary, The Devil We Know and the 2019 main movement image Dark Waters.

A key ingredient to creating Teflon commercially viable was a selected PFAS compound, known as PFOA, manufactured by 3M. PFOA, additionally known as C8 on account of its eight carbon atoms, was more and more ‘baked into’ many on a regular basis home goods and industrial manufacturing processes. Thousands of chemical compounds with the identical carbon-fluorine spine have since been created for industrial use.

In June 2022, the U.S. EPA up to date its well being advisory for PFOA in ingesting water to 4 elements per quadrillion, a traditionally low designation in comparison with different groundwater contaminants and a focus under detection limits for many laboratories. The focus equals a single drop in 230 million gallons of water (about 350 Olympic swimming swimming pools). Although PFOA and PFOS have largely been phased out, many different PFAS are at present present in U.S. supply chains today.

Why Are PFAS So Problematic?

Three components merge to create an ideal storm, making PFAS uniquely problematic as environmental contaminants.

  1. Persistence: The carbon-fluorine bond comprising PFAS is among the strongest in artificial chemistry. This characteristic, useful for a lot of industrial purposes, makes them exceedingly immune to breakdown. Unlike most natural chemical compounds, PFAS should not recognized to degrade over a typical human lifespan, incomes their “endlessly chemical compounds” nickname.
  2. Prevalence: PFAS have been broadly used throughout a spectrum of producing processes for eight a long time. Over time, they’ve grow to be globally widespread throughout all environmental media.
  3. Health dangers: Our understanding of PFAS and the dangers they pose are quickly evolving. However, mounting proof means that publicity to even small quantities of sure PFAS compounds resembling PFOA and PFOS will increase the chance of illness. Reported health effects embrace thyroid illness, decreased fertility, decrease start weight, excessive ldl cholesterol, decreased immunity, and most cancers.

What Is Being Done Now to Address These Contaminants?

PFAS are a major focus of the environmental trade. The EPA, state environmental companies, and remediation professionals are taking steps to handle PFAS contamination. The EPA has categorized PFOA and PFOS as “hazardous substances” and goals to formalize most contaminant ranges (MCLs) allowable in ingesting water later this yr. Many states, together with New York, California, and most New England and Midwestern states have established their very own model of MCLs forward of the EPA.

Significant PFAS publicity dangers happen when the chemical compounds enter groundwater, the place they will affect ingesting water sources and get into our meals provide chains. The commonest technique to handle PFAS removes the publicity danger by pumping groundwater above the bottom and filtering the PFAS out of it utilizing carbon, resins, or different filtration media. The strategy, referred to as pump & deal with, creates giant quantities of PFAS-contaminated supplies that have to be disposed of in a landfill.

However, since PFAS don’t degrade, they’re extremely more likely to leach out of the landfills and re-contaminate groundwater, successfully recreating the issue elsewhere. Landfills are a major supply of PFAS air pollution throughout the United States. Incineration of PFAS wastes just isn’t favored and is more and more not allowed. Due to the dearth of research displaying PFAS contaminants may be incinerated safely, the U.S. Department of Defense not too long ago instituted a moratorium on the observe.

Technologies destroying PFAS are primarily within the experimental stage and entail elaborative processes with excessive power inputs wanted to interrupt the carbon-fluorine bonds. Most choose these harmful applied sciences as unsustainable for treating groundwater contaminated with PFAS, whereas analysis and testing to enhance their effectivity continues.

One confirmed and extremely sustainable know-how includes the injection of a colloidal activated carbon (CAC) materials that treats PFAS by immobilizing them in place. Commercially referred to as PlumeStop®, the CAC materials is injected immediately into the subsurface to deal with groundwater, portray the sand particles or rock housing the groundwater with a coating of microscopic carbon particles. The therapy course of creates an in-ground filtering system successfully eradicating PFAS from groundwater for many years. PlumeStop is at present being utilized at PFAS-contaminated websites worldwide to stop the chance of publicity to those hazardous chemical compounds. The longest-running PFAS therapy has been efficient for greater than six years, with an impartial modeling knowledgeable suggesting it’s going to stay effective for more than 60 years.

Scanning electron microscope image of sand grains coated with PlumeStop CAC particles
Scanning electron microscope picture of sand grains coated with PlumeStop CAC particles

What Can You Do About It?

While the EPA, state/native companies, and the environmental trade at-large work to remove PFAS publicity danger, there are a couple of easy steps anybody can take to reduce exposure to those dangerous chemical compounds.

  1. Start with consciousness. Become conscious of PFAS, the potential danger of chemical publicity, and unfold the information. Reading this text is an efficient place to begin.
  2. Research your native water utility to study if the water provide has been sampled for PFAS. If they’re detected, ask what’s being accomplished about it. Most water utilities present periodic experiences on water high quality and may be discovered by way of the tap water database tool revealed by the Environmental Working Group.
  3. Look for PFAS-free options in your client purchases. Inquire about on a regular basis client merchandise that will include PFAS, together with meals wrappers, cosmetics, dental floss, and weather-resistant clothes. Look for safer options. Although you’ll seemingly not be at important danger by persevering with to put on your PFAS-treated footwear and boots, the continued manufacturing utilization of PFAS results in the contamination of groundwater and ingesting water, and the chance of well being results.

About the Author

Maureen Dooley, Vice President Industrial Sector for REGENESIS,Maureen Dooley is Vice President, Industrial Sector for REGENESIS, the place she is accountable for enterprise improvement and technical assist related to industrial contaminant remediation on websites all through North America. Recently, she has centered on web site remediation for PFAS and chlorinated solvent impacts, working with manufacturing shoppers and property builders to mitigate danger and liabilities related to these contaminants.