Why a stainless, waterproof life may not be better for us after all
Dagmar Liechti von Brasch, MD
We prefer our pancakes and eggs sliding off the pan onto the plate with a whoosh, no sticky bits. We prefer car and home upholstery, as well as carpets, to remain stain free. And yes, water-resistant apparel also comes in handy. It doesn’t seem too much to ask, and yet the conveniences listed above (and so many others, as well as necessities we depend on in our daily lives) may involve the use of products that contain chemicals known as “forever chemicals,” or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS).
The 1940s were pretty much the gateway years to the “chemical revolution” that was to change the way we live. Plastics, pesticides, and forever chemicals (or PFAS), among others, have proven useful and convenient. Each of them, however, has been shown to have deleterious effects on human and environmental health.
PFASs are a group of more than 9,000 substances, many of which are deemed “essential” given their presence in potentially life-saving medical devices and firefighting foams, for example. On the other hand, their colloquial name, forever chemicals, tells the rest of the story: they don’t break down in the environment (or our bodies for that matter).
PFAS compounds contain chains of carbon-fluoride bonds, which are some of the strongest known. They are extremely resistant to heat, water, and grease, and they can be used in very small amounts to confer these qualities to many products we use, or benefit from indirectly.
The number of PFAS compounds listed in the US Environmental Protection Agency’s CompTox Chemicals Dashboard (database) is 14,735, as of August 2022.
There is hardly an industry that doesn’t use one or many PFAS compounds: from the energy sector (including oil and mining) to the manufacturing of plastics, rubber, automotive, and refrigerant systems; from the electronics, pharmaceutical, and cosmetics industries to the manufacturing of medical devices and utensils; from sports equipment (climbing rope included!) and outdoor apparel to household products and food packaging; and from the manufacturing of firefighting foams to the items used in the arts sector (think printing inks, photography, guitar strings, piano keys, textiles, and leather processing).
And therein lies the impasse. PFASs are heavily used, and, as a result, they end up in the environment—water, soil, and air. Oh, and household dust too.
Being environmentally persistent, PFASs accumulate in and all around us. While the risk of exposure is higher in communities near industrial sites that use PFASs and in individuals exposed through work, these compounds can travel, ending up in faraway areas. In fact, it was the detection of PFAS in polar bears that tipped off the scientific world about their far-reaching abilities.
Some of these compounds have now been banned or restricted in some countries, including Canada, but they can still be found in the environment, in wildlife and sea animals, and, of course, in humans. Almost everyone has detectable levels of these chemicals in their bodies, due to their presence in food, drinking water, air, soil, and household dust.
PFAS compounds accumulate primarily in the blood, kidney, and liver, mostly from food and water consumption, which are the result of the use of PFAS compounds by most industries. Most research on their health effects has been done in animal studies, but researchers are beginning to develop more evidence in human studies.
From these studies, PFASs have been found to cause liver damage and kidney dysfunction, and may increase the risk of thyroid disease, some cancers, and hormonal disruption. They have also been found to interfere with reproductive health and fetal development, and ramp up the immune system, increasing the risk of autoimmune conditions. Several studies have shown their impact on blood lipid levels, including increased cholesterol levels.
Women seem to have lower levels of PFAS; some of these chemicals are eliminated during menstruation and through breastmilk. As a result, infants and toddlers can have elevated levels, which may also be, in part, due to crawling on floor coverings with PFAS-containing materials.
It’s tricky to avoid PFASs completely, but there’s some good news to anchor hope on. One of the most urgent goals is to find scalable solutions for removing PFAS from drinking water.
Many PFASs have been declining in the last decade, after being banned or restricted, which is good news. While some alternatives that have shorter molecule chains may be equally or more environmentally persistent, harder to detect, and still affecting human health, others are safe and starting to be used on a larger scale.
Inquire with your local municipality about PFAS contamination in your drinking water, one of the main routes of exposure. When it comes to your buying power, support companies that are phasing out PFAS-containing products, including household, clothing, and personal care products, and consider reducing the use of plastics in your daily life.
As always, every step counts and every action, no matter how small, can lead to a better, cleaner tomorrow.
Some PFAS precursors may be removed using certain bacteria, while evolving research points to a fungi- and plant-derived material that seems to be able to absorb and then “digest” PFAS compounds. Also promising is a newly developed silica-based material that, hopefully, can be scaled up for industrial use and can remove and destroy some of the forever chemicals.