Persistent Pollutants: Addressing Forever Chemicals and Their Risks
By Kylie Wolfe
There’s something lingering in our water and soil—and it’s worth paying attention to. That something is a complex group of chemicals known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). Used since the 1950s in clothing, food packaging, cookware, and cosmetics, these substances have made their way into the environment and the human body and are now raising red flags for scientists around the world.
A Long-Lasting Pollutant
PFAS, a collection of over 5,000 synthetic organic compounds, are commonly referred to as forever chemicals because of how long they can last in the environment and our bodies. They contain a sturdy molecular backbone of fluorine and carbon, elements that form one of the strongest single bonds in chemistry, making them difficult to break down naturally.
PFAS have been around for decades in a range of industrial, commercial, and consumer goods. Many of the compounds that fit into this category provide desirable nonstick and water- and heat-resistant properties, meaning they’ve made their way into numerous products—so many that a complete list of products isn’t known. But because they’ve been so widely used and don’t break down easily, these substances can now be found in human and animal blood, and even in food products.
“These toxic chemicals are so pervasive and so long lasting in the environment that they’ve been found in food, soil, and water, even in the most remote corners of our planet,” said EPA administrator Michael Regan in a news conference and as quoted by PBS NewsHour.
Many cosmetics, for example, contain forever chemicals. In a 2021 study published in Environmental Science & Technology Letters, Notre Dame professor Graham Peaslee and colleagues tested over 200 mascaras, lipsticks, and other beauty products and found that 52 percent of them contained high amounts of fluorine. These chemicals can not only be ingested and absorbed by the wearer but are washed down the drain and can end up in drinking water.
Effects on the Environment and Health
Due to the persistence of these pollutants, scientists are starting to study associated human health and environmental risks. Very few PFAS have been identified, but some have already been linked to infertility, cancer, and an increased risk for high blood pressure and cholesterol, thyroid disease, and kidney problems.
“We live on a planet where every component interacts,” said Susie Dai, associate professor of water and bioenvironmental science at Texas A&M University, in an interview with AgriLife Today. “People are concerned not only about their water, but also about local crops and animals that are produced by using that same water and become part of our food supply.”
There are two main classifications of PFAS: short-chain and long-chain substances. The former contain fewer than six to eight carbons while the latter contain more than six to eight carbons. Studies conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that some PFAS can remain in the body for years—and it’s the short-chain PFAS that build up and stick around.
At this stage, the health risks are unclear and there are still many questions about the long-term effects of PFAS on the body. Current studies indicate that exposure to and an accumulation of PFAS may decrease one’s immune response and interfere with endocrine function.
Plans for Regulations
Over the last few decades, PFAS have been gaining attention in many countries. In the United States in 1986, California approved the Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act, protecting citizens and their water sources from harmful chemicals. In 2006, the Canadian government assessed the effects of perfluorooctane sulphonic acid and determined that exposure to it was not enough to negatively affect human health but that it was entering the environment at harmful levels.
In 2009, perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) was listed in the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants, an international treaty that aims to protect human health and the environment. Then, in 2020, the European Food Safety Authority published a report discussing the risks associated with PFAS in food. As recently as 2022, the European Commission proposed new rules for cleaner air and water, including the addition of PFAS testing.
In the U.S., some states have regulations in place to protect the public from PFAS in drinking water. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently proposed regulations to do the same on a federal level. This would mandate the testing and filtration of water systems before any water source reaches the public.
Thousands of chemicals are considered PFAS—and new regulations would regulate six of those, including perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and PFOS. The cap for PFOA and PFOS would be lowered to four parts per trillion and the remaining four substances would be regulated in combination with each other. These regulations would apply to public water systems, helping to keep PFAS levels below a legally enforceable limit. The EPA requirements are intended to be in place by the end of 2023. And to further address this issue, the EPA announced a $2 billion grant program for small and disadvantaged communities.
An Ongoing Quest for Answers
As society questions and scientists seek to understand the risks associated with these substances, EPA researchers are finding better and more efficient ways to detect and measure PFAS in the environment. This includes uncovering more information about people’s exposure to these compounds, how harmful they are, and how they can be removed, managed, and disposed.
Learning more will help the EPA make informed recommendations and guidelines to protect the health of the population and the environment we live in. Although many questions remain unanswered, highlighting this concern is a step forward for science and society.
Kylie Wolfe is a Thermo Fisher Scientific staff writer.
Prepare for Your Testing Workflows
Whether you’re in food manufacturing, environmental testing, or the chemicals industry, it’s important to be prepared to meet future regulations and address society’s concerns. Having the products needed to conduct your sampling, cold storage, and analysis steps can help you detect these substances efficiently and with ease.
Here are some of the products you can find through the Fisher Scientific channel. Visit fishersci.ca/pfas-testing to start shopping.
- Sample analysis: Find sample collection products, equipment and instruments, and consumables to test for total organic fluorine and other precursors
- Sampling solutions: Shop propylene sampling bottles not made from Teflon™ materials that are loaded with tris buffer (EPA 537.1), soil sampling containers, and more
- Solid-phase extraction (SPE) cartridges: Browse new solid phase extraction columns for PFAS or products for solid-liquid extraction
- Solvents and organic standard solutions: Find methanol, water, chromatography reagents, and more
- Filtration: Explore PFAS water filters
- Chromatography: Discover vials, columns, and other liquid chromatography and mass spectrometry essentials
- Electrochemistry: Monitor the pH water samples with meters, electrodes, and other relevant products
Visit fishersci.ca/industrial-testing to learn more.