The acronym PFAS is now common to those who pay attention to chemical pollutants. PFAS stands for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances. These are manufactured chemical compounds that contain a lot of fluorine. It is important to note that natural fluorine-containing compounds are scarce. PFAS are very stable in the natural environment and are often labeled forever chemicals. Over 12,000 different PFAS have been manufactured for a variety of functions. Unfortunately, the massive production of these compounds was well underway before the understanding of their persistence and toxicity.
The use of PFAS began in the 1940s. They repel oil and water, resist heat, and reduce friction. As a result, the compounds are used in numerous products such as nonstick cookware, water-proof apparel, carpets and textiles, cleaning products, firefighting foam, and lots of food packaging, including microwave popcorn bags and fast food wrappers. PFAS are used in cosmetics, shampoos, dental floss, paints, and many other products. Numerous water reservoirs and soils have been contaminated with PFAS in areas where their manufacture or use has released the compounds.
A map that tracks PFAS contamination was created by the PFAS Project Lab at Northeastern University. It shows the 1,750+ sites where PFAS have been detected in the environment. The project website offers updates, stories, and much information on PFAS. (https://pfasproject.com/) One recent article discusses PFAS detected in new artificial turf for an athletic field in Portsmouth, NH. The community was told the turf would not contain PFAS. The article explains the citizens’ ongoing concerns: “Portsmouth is no stranger to PFAS, which contaminate part of the city’s water supply due to the use of aqueous firefighting foam at a former Air Force base there.”
Studies are underway to understand the health implications of exposure. So far, there is “sufficient evidence of an association” that exposures decrease antibody responses, decrease infant and fetal growth and elevate the risk of kidney cancer in adults. The realities of PFAS are reasons to live simply (less stuff and less manufactured stuff) and in harmony with nature.
Julie Peller, Ph.D., is an environmental chemist (Professor of Chemistry at Valparaiso University ). Julie has been writing a weekly column for the past ~6 years called the Green Junction and is helping to move the call of Laudato Si to action forward. Her Research Interests are advanced oxidation for aqueous solutions, water quality analyses, emerging contaminants, air quality analyses, Lake Michigan shoreline challenges (Cladophora, water, and sediment contaminants), and student and citizen participation in environmental work.