PFAS, short for polyfluoroalkyl substances, is a growing problem in current research on pollutants. Michelle Tan, our Communications and Outreach Specialist, is here to give us the Recap on this issue.
Sometimes it feels like there is a product for every problem— or at least that there should be. When the product is the problem, the easiest solution can be found on an online storefront. I am being tongue-in-cheek, of course, but human history has long been led by convenience. And for just as long, we have been plagued by its consequences.
Global production chains have given us the time and the ability to luxuriate in material conveniences: microwaveable popcorn bags, fast food, readily accessible fire extinguishers, and that non-stick pan that cooks the perfect egg every time. Thanks to stain-resistant fabric, even your clothes, couches, and carpets can be safe from the consequences of our messes—but are we?
Everyone knows that manufacturing creates pollution and that some of our household items contain harmful substances. After all, headlines that read ‘Insert Blank’ Causes Cancer are an unavoidable part of 21st-century living. But in countries like Canada where pollution is less apparent and smog does not regularly fill the streets, it can be easy to underestimate the extent and significance of environmental contamination.
And yet, if you were to go out right now to test your blood, it would almost certainly contain measurable levels of PFAS pollution.1 This has been true since the day you were born; your mother’s placenta offered passage to more than just nutrients and oxygen.2 This remains true regardless of whether you live in the city or the country.
Just what is PFAS all about?
Often dubbed ‘forever chemicals’ because of their impressive chemical stability, per and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are a complex group of manmade chemicals that possess the unique ability to resist heat, oil, stains, grease, and water. However, as noted by Courtney Carignan, an environmental epidemiologist and Assistant Professor at Michigan State University, “It seems that the property that makes them useful — that they’re very persistent and they have this one part of them that really likes water and the other part that does not — also seems to be what makes them problematic in the body.”3 The same can be said for the environment.
Recent evidence suggests that rainwater, surface water, and ground soil are all extensively contaminated by PFAS around the world.4 These compounds remain in environments long after contamination, and some are known to spread great distances via waterways and wind. In many cases, remediation is no longer possible without expensive technological intervention leaving little recourse for poor or underresourced communities.5
Environmental contamination can occur throughout the production chain including manufacturing, product use, and disposal making it exceedingly difficult to identify and track exposure pathways. PFAS are involved in an alarmingly long list of industrial and manufacturing practices and have been detected in a wide array of consumer products. More than a megaton of PFAS are produced annually6, much of which ends up in products like waterproof clothing, furniture, adhesives, food packaging, fast food, makeup, hair care products, nonstick pans, menstrual underwear, popcorn bags, firefighting foam, and even waxed dental floss. I wish this was an exhaustive list.
A common occurrence, yet a dangerous one
Due to the ease of solubility, PFAS are an extremely common pollutant present in aquatic ecosystems as well as urban and rural drinking water supplies.7 According to the Environmental Working Group, PFAS have already been documented in over 330 species including polar bears, tigers, monkeys, and dolphins.8 Aquatic animals like frogs and other amphibians, otters, and fish are particularly vulnerable, especially in highly contaminated areas. Worryingly, PFAS exposure has been shown to cause oxidative stress, DNA damage, and tissue damage in various mussel species.9 In aquatic ecosystems, microorganisms and other creatures at the bottom of the food web are essential for circulating nutrients and energy. As a result, “ the toxicity and bioaccumulation effects on aquatic organisms directly determine the survival of all other animals along this food chain.”10 Consequently, PFAS pose a significant threat to both environmental and human health.
Considering the novelty of these chemicals (as well as their vastness, there are well over 4000 different compounds in active use) the full range of health impacts associated with such widespread pollution is not entirely known. But as medical literature rapidly mounts, it is beginning to paint a rather grim picture. The effects of PFAS exposure on human health have been extensively studied identifying possible carcinogenic, reproductive, endocrine, neurotoxic, dyslipidemia, and immunotoxic effects. PFAS exposure has been linked to increased cholesterol levels, decreased vaccine responses in children, higher risk of preeclampsia in pregnant people, and increased risk of kidney and testicular cancer11. While drinking contaminated water is one of the main sources of human exposure, in the absence of intense public backlash, very few treatment facilities across the world effectively remove PFAS. Your Brita or fridge filter doesn’t stand a chance.
If you have never heard of PFAS before, don’t be alarmed, you are not alone. Despite its ubiquity, there remains little awareness of the issue among communities across the world. Currently, PFAS regulation in Canada is in its infancy and little pressure has been placed on manufacturers to limit its use. After all, PFAS have become an integral part of many manufacturing and industrial practices and there is not always an obvious alternative. While British Colombia, Ontario, Quebec, and Alberta have basic PFAS guidelines, they only look at PFOS, PFOA, and sometimes PFBS (three compounds of the thousands in circulation)12.
A tough road ahead?
The story of PFAS is a familiar one that we have seen play out time and time again from DDT13 to CFCs14. In both of these cases, it took dedicated action from concerned citizens, scientists, and activists to stifle rampant pollution. And yet, nearly eliminating CFC pollution (the compounds responsible for the once formidable ozone hole) is one of the greatest environmental success stories of the last century. If history tells us anything, it is that the road to a PFAS-free future will be long and tumultuous— but certainly not impossible. We did it before, and we can do it again.
At this point, increasing PFAS awareness at both the community and global levels is vital. If you want to get involved and make a difference, start a conversation with a friend about pollution, ask your municipality if there are any measures in place to monitor PFAS pollution, and/or contact your local representatives. Tackling such a wicked problem can be a daunting task, but small actions add up. There is no time to wait for our next Rachel Carson15, the time to speak up is now!
1 – Fenton , Suzanne, et al. “Per‐ and Polyfluoroalkyl Substance Toxicity and Human Health” National Center for Biotechnology Information , 2020, setac.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/etc.4890.
2 – Bangma, Jacqueline et al. “Identifying Risk Factors for Levels of Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS) in the Placenta in a High-Risk Pregnancy Cohort in North Carolina.” Environmental science & technology vol. 54,13 (2020): 8158-8166. doi:10.1021/acs.est.9b07102
3 – Isaacs-Thomas, Bella. “Why Getting Pfas out of Our Products Is so Hard – and Why It Matters.” PBS, 28 Sept. 2022, www.pbs.org/newshour/science/pfas-are-everywhere-what-can-we-do-to-change-that.
4 – Cousins, Ian T., et al. “Outside the Safe Operating Space of a New Planetary Boundary for Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS).” Environmental Science & Technology, vol. 56, no. 16, 2022, pp. 11172–11179, https://doi.org/10.1021/acs.est.2c02765.
5 – Isaacs-Thomas, Bella.
6 – Evich, Marina, et al.
7 – Isaacs-Thomas, Bella.
8 – “Wildlife Warning: More than 330 Species Contaminated with ‘Forever Chemicals.’” Environmental Working Group, 5 May 2023, www.ewg.org/news-insights/news/2023/02/wildlife-warning-more-330-species-contaminated-forever-chemicals.
9 – Fenton , Suzanne, et al.
10 – Fenton , Suzanne, et al.
11 – Isaacs-Thomas, Bella.
12 – Hains, Justin, and Sasha Richards. Impacts of the New PFAS Maximum Contaminant Levels (MCL) and What You …, 2023, www.stantec.com/en/ideas/topic/covid-19/impacts-of-the-new-pfas-maximum-contaminant-levels-mcl-and-what-you-can-do.
13 – A widely used insecticide banned in the 1980s in Canada.
14 – Chemicals known to break down ozone.
15 – Carson is the author of the seminal book Silent Spring (1962) which exposed the consequences of widespread DDT use.