Our Most Toxic Chemical: Who is Doing What about PFAS?

What is PFAS?  PFAS chemicals (per-/poly-fluroalkyl substances), are one of the most toxic substances ever identified — harmful at concentrations in the parts per trillion–and they are everywhere.  Despite the fact that there was no requirement to conduct safety testing before unleashing the PFAS chemical on the public, and despite their high toxic level, very little is known about them. What we do know is that PFAS have been labelled, “forever chemicals” because they have bonds that are among the strongest in all of chemistry.  A chemist studying the PFAS chemical family, Dr. Matt Reeves, a professor at Western Michigan University, says: “It’s almost like armor…we don’t have any evidence of degradation of these compounds.”  In other words, PFAS chemicals can potentially be in our environment forever.  Scientists don’t even talk about PFAS as having a ‘life cycle’ because PFAS has a perpetual cycle. At the present time we cannot break down these compounds, so as of now there’s no ‘death’ of this toxin.

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Where is PFAS Used?  They have been produced for decades and are used in shampoo, cosmetics and many, many other personal care products, as well as home products, clothing, firefighting foam, car wax, and in places they can leach into the food you put inside your body like nonstick cookware and numerous food containers including fast-food wrappers.

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What are the Effects of PFAS Chemicals?   Because of their toxicity at extremely low concentrations, there are risks from PFAS bioaccumulation.  In addition to their presence in the human body–where, among other serious effects, they are linked with increased rates of some types of cancer, hormonal disruption, and immune responses–PFAS chemicals (a class of over 12,000 compounds) are released into the environment, transported through groundwater, river, and soils, and can only be partially remediated.

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Who is Regulating PFAS Chemicals?   PFAS chemicals are not regulated by the U.S. federal government–they are only regulated at the state level.  This means that while some states are working to aggressively tackle the problem, other states have chosen to ignore PFAS completely, leaving concentrations unknown and health risks unexplored for their residents.

The state of Michigan has a legacy of PFAS contamination from industry.  Fortunately, Michigan has been the most proactive in studying and regulating the family of PFAS chemicals.  In recent years the Michigan state government has enacted strict regulations for seven compounds in the PFAS family. For one compound, the highest safe limit is just 6 ppt — far lower than the EPA’s guidelines.

The state of North Carolina also has a legacy of PFAS contamination from industry.  Researchers in North Carolina are currently quantifying PFAS transport in the environment.  More specifically, they are studying how quickly PFAS are flushed from groundwater to streams. This flushing is a critical part of the water cycle that determines when residents can expect their drinking water to be safe. 

In the state of Arizona researchers are studying PFAS in soils, which serve as a PFAS repository between groundwater and surface waters. Scientists have examined over 30,000 soil samples from around the world. PFAS were found to be present at almost every site that was sampled, whether it was a metropolitan area, near an industrial source, or out in a rural area–PFAS has even been found in some very remote mountain areas.


Other PFAS Facts

PFAS chemicals (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances) are toxic to humans, animals and the environment. They are comprised of approximately 12,000 compounds. They are ubiquitous in the U.S., appearing in thousands of consumer and industrial products and are typically used to make products resist water, stains and heat, including household products (like carpeting, curtains, furniture upholstery, waterproof and stain-resistant flooring, etc.), cooking supplies (including cooking utensils and bake ware), clothing, personal care products (like cosmetics, including waterproof mascara) and even food (PFAS appears in processed food packaging for humans and pets) and public drinking water (tap water) that affects an estimated 2 million Americans. PFAS chemicals are usually found in products labeled “stain-proof” and “waterproof”.  PFAS chemicals also appear in fire-fighting foam and other industrial products used at airports and military bases across the country, where the chemicals have leached into the groundwater. PFAS chemicals are known as “forever chemicals” because they do not readily break down in the environment or human body.  PFAS chemicals have been linked in scientific and medical studies to a variety of serious health conditions including cancer (including testicular cancers), kidney disease, heart disease, thyroid problems, reproductive problems, endocrine problems (PFAS has been found to disrupt hormonal functions with some research suggesting that the PFAS chemicals are linked to accelerated ovarian aging, period irregularities and ovarian disorders like polycystic ovarian syndrome) and liver problems. Some newer PFAS have been found to accumulate in organs, so in some cases, science simply cannot detect the toxic chemicals when testing for it in blood.

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What is Next? This topic will be discussed at the upcoming Geological Society of America’s 2020 Annual Meeting, in a technical session which will help bring the problem of PFAS to national attention. Presentations will discuss how PFAS are released into the environment, transported through groundwater, river, and soils, and partially remediated.   The idea: The more awareness there is among scientists, the better chance there is for finding a solution like this one: Copolymer helps remove pervasive PFAS toxins from environment.


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pfas info graphic-michigan dept of environ quality



More scientific findings about PFAS:


Tooth Decay Linked to Toxic Chemical PFAS: New Study

Toxic PFAS Chemicals may be Slipping Right Through Your Home Water Filtration System

Toxic Forever Chemical PFAS Leaching into Food, FDA Confirms

Endocrine-Disrupting Chemicals: Health Threat Grows

Celiac Disease Linked to Common Toxic Chemicals

Food Packaging Chemical Linked with Miscarriage: New Study

Eating Out Linked with Higher Levels of Toxic Chemicals in Your Blood

Toxic Forever Chemicals Lurking in Eco-Friendly Food Packaging?

Stop Exposing the Public to Unnecessary Toxic Chemicals: Scientists

Big Chemical Sued (again) Over Toxic Food Packaging Chemicals

Toxic Forever-Chemical in Your Drinking Water: Status Update

Toxic Industrial Chemicals Pass to Fetus Throughout Pregnancy: Scientists

Life-Altering Toxic Chemicals: A Brief History

Increased weight gain linked with common chemicals

Chemicals of Concern in One-Third of Fast Food Packaging: New Study

Researchers Discover High Levels of Toxic Industrial Chemical in U.S. Drinking Water