PFAS are commonly used in non-stick cookware. Duane Mendes, Unsplash

What are forever chemicals?

Why do they matter, and will they ever go away?

If you’ve been following the news lately, you’ll likely have heard about ‘forever chemicals.’

New studies are showing just how ubiquitous and potentially deadly these synthetic groups of molecules are, with some commentators even dubbing them “the greatest chemical threat of the 21st century.”

Now, regulators in various countries are taking action to restrict their use. Yet despite their prevalence and perils, many of us have never even heard of them – let alone considered how we might avoid them or limit their impact on future ecosystems and populations.

Join us to find out about what ‘forever chemicals’ are, what we know and don’t know about them, and what else we could do to mitigate their production and effects.

Waterproof boots
PFAS are widely used to make waterproof clothing and footwear. Photo via envato

What are forever chemicals?

The name ‘forever chemicals’ refers to a group of more than 15,000 chemicals that don’t occur in nature and are well-known for their water, heat, stain and oil-resistant properties.

Known within the scientific community as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), and first developed in the 1930s at U.S. chemical company 3M, they’ve been a key component of many consumer and industrial products since the 1950s.

PFAS encompass a diverse array of synthetic compounds characterized by strong carbon-fluorine bonds, which make them highly durable and resistant to degradation. Notable PFAS include PFOS (perfluorooctanesulfonic acid), PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid) and PFBS (perfluorobutanesulfonic acid).

Their resilience to degradation is both a blessing and a curse. It makes them extremely useful for a wide range of applications. Yet on the flip side, it also means they take thousands of years to break down in nature.

What’s more, PFAS are highly mobile once they’re in the environment, continuously moving through the ground, water and air. They lodge themselves in the bodies of most living things, including ourselves, causing multiple impacts that we’re only just beginning to understand. This persistence has earned the PFAS class the moniker ‘forever chemicals.’

Pizza
PFAS are also used in pizza boxes and other food packaging. Photo via envato

What are PFAS used for?

The ‘staying power’ of PFAS makes them valuable in a vast range of industrial and consumer applications.

For instance, you’ll find them in firefighting foams, microchips, semiconductors and electronics. They’re also prevalent in solar panel and wind turbine coatings, as well as in lithium-ion batteries and electrolyzers for hydrogen production, leading some industry bodies to argue that they’re critical to the much-needed green energy transition.

These substances are often present in waterproof textiles and food packaging: think ‘greaseproof’ products like fast food wrappers, microwave popcorn bags and takeout pizza boxes.

And they’re even found in personal care products like lipsticks, eyeshadows, moisturizers, shampoos, rouges, nail polish and enamel, blushers and cleansers. They’re used to finesse product consistency and texture or make skin look more uniform and hair appear shinier.

Polar bears
PFAS have even been found in polar bears. Hans-Jurgen Mager, Unsplash

Where have PFAS been found?

Essentially, everywhere.

PFAS seem to accumulate in soil, water bodies and organisms, perpetuating a cycle of exposure. Scientists have found them in rainwater, ocean spray, wildlife – including in polar bears in the Arctic Circle and penguin eggs in Antarctica – and, yes, humans.

“The fact scientists are finding PFAS in species sampled everywhere should concern anyone – wherever we look for these forever chemicals, we find them,” said the Environmental Working Group in a 2023 press release.

Have I been exposed to forever chemicals?

Chances are, yes.

It’s extremely likely that you’ve consumed food and water contaminated by PFAS, inhaled airborne particles, and/or that your skin has come into contact with products that contain them.

Biomonitoring studies are revealing widespread human exposure, with detectable levels found in blood, urine and breast milk samples.

Yet we still have plenty to learn about where we’re mostly picking up PFAS from – and how to avoid doing so. Scientists recently found, for instance, that ocean waves crashing on the world’s shores emit more PFAS into the air than the world’s industrial polluters.

“We thought PFAS were going to go into the ocean and would disappear, but they cycle around and come back to land, and this could continue for a long time into the future,” said lead author Ian Cousins in an interview with The Guardian on the research.

Ocean waves
A recent study found that ocean spray contains more PFAS than many industrial plants. Photo via envato

How do forever chemicals affect our health?

The health impacts of PFAS are a subject of growing concern.

Prolonged exposure has been linked to adverse effects on liver and kidney function, immune response and thyroid hormone regulation, as well as obesity, diabetes and death by cardiovascular disease.

They have also been linked with negative reproductive health outcomes, including decreased fertility, birth defects and lower birth weights.

Furthermore, certain PFAS compounds are classified as probable carcinogens, having been associated with a multitude of cancers.

It’s not yet clear what we can generalize across the broad category of PFAS in terms of their health impacts, however: much more research is needed.

“PFAS are a diverse universe of chemistries,” said the American Chemistry Council, a trade association, said in a recent statement.

“All PFAS are not the same. Individual chemistries have different physical, chemical, and toxicological properties, as well as differing uses.”

What are governments doing about forever chemicals?

Many governments have already moved to ban or limit levels and usages of certain kinds of PFAS, but the lack of current knowledge and research still hinders timely action.

Back in 2011, for instance, the U.S. government banned the use of ‘long-chain PFAS,’ a subclass of the chemical group that seemed to linger particularly long in human bodies.

Since then, manufacturers have substituted these for ‘short-chain PFAS,’ which are thought to be less hazardous for humans, but subsequent research has shown that they may actually be metabolized into forms that linger in tissue – and that they are more mobile in the environment than their long-chain counterparts.

This year, the U.S. has set its first nationwide limit on PFAS levels in tap water – the world’s strictest requirements on this yet – and partially banned their usage in food packaging.

Meanwhile, across the pond, Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands, Norway and Sweden have put forward a proposal for an EU-wide ban on all PFAS compounds, which has been called “one of the broadest restriction proposals in EU history.”

3M
3M, the inventor of PFAS, will stop making them amid multiple lawsuits. Gerard Stolk, Flickr

Are PFAS manufacturers facing any consequences?

In recent years, PFAS manufacturers have faced mounting legal scrutiny and public backlash. Lawsuits have proliferated, targeting manufacturers for environmental contamination, health damages and failure to disclose risks.

For instance, in the city of Dordrecht in the Netherlands, a recent court case ruled that the Chemours chemical plant sited there, which makes PFAS-based products such as Teflon, can be held liable for damage caused by PFAS pollution in the region.

This includes high contamination of water in ditches and swimming spots located up to 15 kilometers away from the plant itself.

Meanwhile, over 50 leading investment firms, with a combined USD 12 trillion in assets, are demanding that the world’s biggest producers of PFAS phase out their production of the chemicals.

This negative attention – and potentially sizable liability – has prompted some companies to phase out PFAS compounds and start investing in research for safer alternatives.

Even 3M, which recently settled a claim from victims of PFAS-contaminated drinking water at a whopping USD 10.5 billion, will stop making the compounds by the end of 2025.

Can we get rid of forever chemicals?

That’s the multi-billion-dollar question. Scientists across the globe are working on ways to clean up the long-lasting effects of PFAS.

But given their persistence and widespread distribution, it’s a challenging task. In the past, researchers thought they could be destroyed by incineration, but it now seems that just disperses them into the air instead.

Some mitigation techniques show promise, such as filtering water with activated carbon and/or resin, but they’re not 100 percent effective, and they don’t actually destroy the compounds.

Methods to permanently and safely destroy PFAS do exist, though they’re currently very costly and resource-intensive. The Swiss company Oxyle, for instance, has developed a reactor that breaks apart their tough carbon-fluorine bonds through a mineralization process.

However, it seems that the most feasible approach may be to prevent PFAS from being produced and released in the first place – through regulation and by developing and adopting effective alternatives.

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