PFAS is a big problem but one that is not widely known about. Yet PFAS is present in more places than we think and its effects can be life threatening. We discuss what it is, where these chemicals can be found and what is being done about the problem.
What is PFAS?
PFAS is the group name for a number of man-made chemicals – it stands for per - and polyfluoroalkyl substances. There are four chemicals within this family which are commonly studied:
PFOA: Perfluorooctanoic acid;
PFOS: Perfluorooctane sulfonic acid;
PFHxS: Perfluorohexane sulfonic acid;
PFNA: Perfluorononanoic acid
The most harmful of these chemicals, particularly when it comes to human health concerns, are PFOA and PFOS and these form the basis for most action taken by environment agencies and other regulating bodies. Yet, there remains a lack of knowledge around these chemicals, how to deal with them and their effects if they are left untouched.
Where did PFAS come from and where can the chemicals be found?
PFAS chemicals were developed in the 1940s by the Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Company (3M) and are formed by bonding fluorine with carbon. They repel oil, grease and water and do not break down in the environment. PFAS chemicals are also bio-accumulative which means they increase in concentration as they move up the food chain. They are used in lots of everyday items like non-stick cookware, water-repellent clothing, stain resistant fabrics and carpets, some cosmetics and firefighting foams.
The use of PFAS is so widespread that, when combined with the fact that they do not break down in the environment, it was estimated in the year 2000 that PFOS had contaminated the blood of more than 95% of the world's human population along with wildlife in remote areas of the globe. A striking example of this is the discovery that PFAS contamination was increasing the risk of breast cancer among Inuit women in Greenland, a population with no connection to PFAS chemicals at all but still being affected by them.
PFOA has also been found in polar bears in the Arctic, we're speculating here but we'd guess that this is through eating contaminated seals who have in turn eaten contaminated fish, highlighting the bio-accumulative effect of the PFAS family chains (If you know more about why, we'd love to hear from you!).