PFAS Forever Chemicals: From Perpetuity to Prevention, Seeking a Safer Future

PFAS Forever Chemicals: From Perpetuity to Prevention, Seeking a Safer Future
June 29, 2023 Megan Hopkins

PFAS Forever Chemicals: From Perpetuity to Prevention, Seeking a Safer Future

Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) have gained significant attention in recent years due to their widespread presence, persistence in the environment, and potential adverse health effects. PFAS forever chemicals are a group of human-made chemicals that have been used in various industrial and consumer products for decades. They have been dubbed “forever chemicals” due to their extreme persistence in nature, lasting thousands of years without biodegrading. Recent landmark settlements by major manufacturing companies, some promising the complete phase-out of PFAS by 2025, have confirmed the dangerous environmental and public health impacts associated with PFAS contamination.

The term ‘forever chemicals’ has become widely known, and concern is mounting on the use of these ingredients in product formulations. One of these chemicals, per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), have gained significant attention in recent years due to their widespread presence, persistence in the environment and potential adverse health effects.

The growing awareness and accountability surrounding PFAS issues is paving the way for enhanced regulations, further research and a renewed focus on protecting the environment and public health from the impacts of these persistent chemicals. This is a significant step towards addressing the consequences of PFAS contamination and underscores the urgency of transitioning to safer and more sustainable alternatives.

What are PFAS?

PFAS forever chemicals are a large group of synthetic chemicals characterized by the presence of carbon-fluorine bonds. They are known for their specialized properties, such as water and oil repellency, heat resistance and chemical stability. They have been used in various industrial applications and consumer products. PFAS forever chemicals can be divided into two main subgroups: perfluoroalkyl substances and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFOA).

What is PFOA?

PFOA stands for perfluorooctanoic acid. It is a specific type of PFAS that has received considerable attention. PFOA has been widely used in the production of non-stick coatings, such as Teflon, as well as in firefighting foams. It is known for its persistence in the environment and potential adverse health effects. PFOA is one of the most extensively studied PFAS compounds.

Environmental Impacts of PFAS Forever Chemicals

The environmental impacts of PFAS are a matter of growing concern due to their persistence, bioaccumulation and potential toxicity. Some of the key environmental impacts associated with PFAS forever chemicals are:

  1. Water Contamination: PFAS can contaminate water sources, including surface water and groundwater. They have been found in drinking water supplies, lakes, rivers and even remote areas. PFAS can leach into water bodies from industrial discharges, wastewater treatment plants, landfills and firefighting foams, posing a risk to aquatic ecosystems and potentially entering the food chain. In fact, a new study by the U.S. Geological Survey found that at least 45% of the tap water in the United States contained one or more types of PFAS. This number could actually be higher as current testing methods cannot detect all known PFAS types.
  2. Soil and Sediment Contamination: PFAS forever chemicals can accumulate in soil and sediment, leading to long-term contamination. Runoff from contaminated areas can transport PFAS to nearby soil and sediments, affecting both terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems. PFAS can persist in these environments for extended periods, potentially posing risks to plants, animals and organisms living in or near contaminated areas.
  3. Wildlife and Ecosystem Effects: PFAS exposure can have adverse effects on wildlife. Studies have shown impacts on fish, birds and mammals, including reproductive and developmental abnormalities, altered immune responses and disrupted endocrine function. PFAS forever chemicals accumulation in the food chain can potentially affect higher trophic levels and ecological dynamics within ecosystems.
  4. Human Exposure: Environmental contamination can lead to human exposure to PFAS through various pathways, including drinking water, consumption of contaminated food and inhalation of contaminated air near industrial facilities or waste sites. PFAS forever chemicals can accumulate in the human body over time and have been associated with potential adverse health effects, although more research is needed to understand the full extent of these impacts.
  5. Long-Term Persistence: One of the most significant concerns with PFAS is their persistence in the environment. PFAS compounds are resistant to degradation, leading to their long-term presence in the environment. This persistence increases the likelihood of widespread contamination and long-lasting environmental impacts.
  6. Potential for Global Distribution: PFAS have been detected in various regions worldwide, indicating their global distribution. Their ability to travel long distances through air and water currents can result in contamination far from their original sources. This global distribution poses challenges for mitigation and remediation efforts.

Health Risks of PFAS Forever Chemicals

Studies have linked exposure to PFAS with potential adverse health effects, including liver damage, immune system dysfunction, hormonal disruption, an increased risk of certain cancers and various other health risks. While the full extent of their health effects is still being researched, some of the potential health risks associated with PFAS are:

Effects on Liver

Studies have linked PFAS exposure to liver damage, including liver function abnormalities, increased liver enzymes and hepatocellular carcinoma (a type of liver cancer).

Immune System Dysfunction

PFAS exposure has been associated with immune system dysfunction. It can affect antibody production, reduce vaccine effectiveness and impair the body’s ability to fight infections and diseases.

Hormonal Disruption

Certain PFAS compounds, such as PFOA and PFOS, have been linked to disruptions in hormone regulation. They can interfere with the functioning of the endocrine system, which controls various bodily processes, including growth, development, metabolism and reproduction.

Development and Reproductive Effects

Some studies have suggested that PFAS exposure may impact fetal growth and development. Prenatal exposure to PFAS forever chemicals have been associated with lower birth weights, decreased fertility and potential developmental delays in infants and children.

Increased Risk of Certain Cancers

There is evidence linking PFAS exposure to an increased risk of certain types of cancers, including kidney, testicular, prostate and ovarian cancers. However, more research is needed to establish a definitive causal relationship.

Other Health Concerns

PFAS exposure has also been associated with potential effects on cholesterol levels, thyroid hormone disruption and cardiovascular disease. However, the exact mechanisms and extent of these associations are still being investigated.

Where are PFAS found?

PFAS forever chemicals are found in consumer products and industrial applications such as:

  • Cleaning Products
  • Firefighting Foams
  • Textile and Leather Treatments
  • Personal Care Products
  • Oilfield Chemicals
  • Agricultural Applications
  • Coatings and Paints
  • Metalworking Fluids
  • Food Packaging
  • Electronics and Semiconductor Industry
  • And many more

By replacing PFAS formulations with safer alternatives, we can reduce our reliance on these harmful chemicals and promote safer, more sustainable practices across various industries.

How Can Consumers Minimize Their Exposure to PFAS Now?

Consumers can take several steps to minimize their exposure to PFAS:

  1. Filter Drinking Water: Install a certified water filter that is specifically designed to remove PFAS contaminants. Look for filters that are certified by NSF International or the Water Quality Association (WQA) for PFAS removal.
  2. Avoid Stain-Resistant Products: Opt for non-stain-resistant furniture, carpets and clothing. Stain-resistant treatments often contain PFAS chemicals, so choosing products without these treatments can help reduce exposure.
  3. Read Product Labels: Check labels for any mention of PFAS or related compounds such as PFOA and PFOS. Avoid products that explicitly state the presence of PFAS or have “fluoro” or “perfluoro” ingredients.
  4. Use PFAS-Free Cookware: Choose cookware made from stainless steel, cast iron or ceramic materials, as they are generally PFAS-free. Avoid using non-stick cookware, especially those with a Teflon coating, as they often contain PFAS.
  5. Opt for Natural Fiber Clothing: Select clothing made from natural fibers such as cotton, linen, hemp or wool. Synthetic materials like polyester and nylon may have been treated with PFAS for water or stain resistance.
  6. Be Mindful of Fast Food Packaging: Fast food wrappers, microwave popcorn bags and other food packaging materials can contain PFAS. Whenever possible, opt for fresh, unpackaged foods or bring your own reusable containers.
  7. Choose PFAS-Free Personal Care Products: Read the ingredient lists of personal care products such as cosmetics, shampoos and lotions, and avoid those containing PFAS. Look for products labeled as “PFAS-free” or “free of perfluorinated chemicals.”
  8. Research Cleaning Products: Look for cleaning products that are labeled as PFAS-free or specifically mention the absence of PFAS in their formulations. Consider switching to natural, eco-friendly alternatives like vinegar, baking soda and plant-based cleaners.
  9. Be Cautious with Firefighting Foam: If you work in an industry that uses firefighting foam, follow proper safety protocols to minimize exposure. Be aware of the potential presence of PFAS and ensure proper disposal of foam and protective gear.
  10. Stay Informed: Stay updated on the latest research and news regarding PFAS to make informed decisions about your purchases and lifestyle choices. Consumer awareness and demand for PFAS-free products can help drive change and encourage safer alternatives.

Remember, individual actions combined with collective efforts can make a significant impact in reducing exposure to PFAS and promoting a healthier environment.

The Need For Safer Alternatives To PFAS Forever Chemicals

PFAS and other forever chemicals like PBT and lead represent a complex environmental and health challenge. Their persistence, widespread use and potential health risks have sparked increasing concern among scientists, policymakers and the public.

Understanding the sources, environmental impact and health risks associated with PFAS is crucial for implementing effective mitigation strategies and protecting both human health and the environment. Finding sustainable alternatives to minimize the use of PFAS is paramount to building a healthier, PFAS-free future.

Forever Chemicals are Part of a Larger Chemicals of Concern Group

‘Forever chemicals’ (PFAS, PBT, lead) are actually a very small category of the larger “chemicals of concern” group. There hasn’t been as much attention on other emerging contaminants like Prop 65 chemicals and 1,4-dioxane. New York just passed a law on 1,4-dioxane that went into effect Dec 31, 2022, and hundreds of other chemicals are being reviewed both inside and outside the US. These restrictions are going to continue to increase.

Emerging contaminants like 1,4-dioxane and other trace chemicals are often caused by use of ethoxylated surfactants in a product formulation. This has caused growing pressure to replace these surfactants with bio-based alternatives.

Biosurfactants as Sustainable Alternatives to Ethoxylated Surfactants

Many formulators are turning to biosurfactants as sustainable ingredients for product formulations. Certain fermentation-produced biosurfactants can be used as co-surfactants to replace ethoxylated surfactants, which produce 1,4-dioxane.

One specific example is a line of sophorolipids developed by Locus Ingredients. These naturally derived biosurfactants from the glycolipid class are non-GMO and produced through a low-carbon fermentation process. Unlike traditional surfactants, they have no irritation or trace chemicals such as 1,4-dioxane, ethylene oxide (EO) and formaldehyde. Locus’ sophorolipids are USDA certified as 100% biobased, listed on EPA’s Cleangredients and approved for Safer Choice label products, including those with direct release into waterways.

By embracing the use of biosurfactants like Locus Ingredients’ sophorolipids, formulators can streamline the development of clean-label products and minimize certain chemicals of concern for a more sustainable and environmentally friendly future.

Want to learn more about biosurfactants and how they propel formulation technology into a cleaner tomorrow? Let’s talk.