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 3000 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.
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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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More scientific findings about PFAS: