Understanding PFAS: The Invisible Threat

Have you ever heard about the PFAS? Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, are human-made chemicals not found naturally in the environment. While PFAS offers various practical applications, their pervasive presence and environmental persistence raise critical concerns. PFAS molecules, known for their durability, do not decompose, leading to their accumulation in the environment and nature.…

Isabelle Tegnér Avatar

Have you ever heard about the PFAS? Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, are human-made chemicals not found naturally in the environment. While PFAS offers various practical applications, their pervasive presence and environmental persistence raise critical concerns. PFAS molecules, known for their durability, do not decompose, leading to their accumulation in the environment and nature. They infiltrate ecosystems at every stage, from manufacturing processes to product disposal. Widely used for their diverse properties, PFAS find applications in products ranging from waterproof fabrics to detergents.

Usage:

PFAS have been manufactured since 1950 and are used in many products from goods to chemical products due to its technical properties. Many PFAS are fat, dirt and water repellant, making it exceptional to be used for impregnation. Many are also surfactants, making them useful in the manufacture of products such as paints, ski wax, detergents and cosmetics. In Sweden the largest source of emission of PFAS is through foam to extinguish fires used by firefighters at practice areas. These sites lead to rising levels of PFAS in the drinking water and soil. There are no companies in Sweden that manufacture PFAS the substance, but there are companies that use PFAS in their manufacturing of other products, which cause local emissions. Other sources of emissions come from water treatment plants, waste incinerators and also leakage from landfills. Some of the emissions come from airborne depositions which contribute to the levels of PFAS in the Swedish environment. As mentioned it is difficult to get rid of PFAS in the water and soil, but there are methods on the market that remove some levels of PFAS from the drinking water. PFAS occurs everywhere in the environment and almost every human being is a carrier. In Sweden the general exposure of PFAS comes from food and indoor environment, but where the levels of PFAS locally is higher the source is contaminated drinking water from example firefighters drill sites.

Risks:

Something that all PFAS have in common is the ability to travel long distances through both air and water. This means that the substance can be found far from the areas of manufacturing or usage – for example in arctic environments – making PFAS a global problem. Some PFAS bioaccumulate within living organisms and may be bioaccumulated when rising through the food chain, which means that the content of the substance increases the further up the food chain we go. 

There is evidence that PFAS both have effects on the environment and health. However there is limited knowledge of the health effects of many PFAS, but some are known as reproductive toxins and suspected carcinogens, but there are good reasons to consider all PFAS -substances as a health hazard. Some experiments have been conducted on animals regarding the health effects and some of the common effects to find are changes on; blood lipids, the liver, thyroid hormones, the immune system and reproductive system, also including tumors and mammary gland development. But further studies regarding the effects on humans needs to be done to determine if these effects are relevant to humans. 

The Swedish Chemicals Agency is working towards minimizing the use of PFAS and eventually phasing it out completely. There are also several national and international collaborations who are working on increasing the awareness and knowledge of the substance and to establish rules and guidelines. The way that PFAS is made up makes PFAS highly stable and persistence substances. Making some of the substances not degradable at all, while others break down extremely slowly into other PFAS. No studies have demonstrated that PFAS degrades totally in the environment, meaning that the substance will remain in nature forever. PFAS can now be found everywhere across the globe, even in drinking water sources. In fact, if production wastewater is not properly treated, PFAS may enter both surface and ground water, making it mandatory to find ways to stop the usage and emission of PFAS.

Legislation:

Individual PFAS substances are subject to regulation on a global, EU, and national level, yet there is currently no overarching legislation applicable to all PFAS as a collective group. The introduction of regulations targeting specific PFAS often leads to their substitution with other, unregulated PFAS, rendering the regulatory efforts ineffective in reducing overall PFAS usage. This situation, compounded by the persistent and hazardous nature of PFAS, contributes to their risk profile. Given the time-consuming nature of assessing each PFAS individually, the Swedish Chemicals Agency, along with counterparts in other EU Member States, are actively working to evaluate and regulate PFAS as a group. The agency’s ultimate aim is to minimize and ultimately phase out the use of PFAS, permitting their usage only in instances where no viable alternatives exist and when their application is deemed critical to society. Importantly, fluorine-free alternatives are already available in many areas where PFAS are currently utilized. Anticipated restrictions on PFAS usage are not expected to be implemented before 2025 at the earliest.

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  • Understanding PFAS: The Invisible Threat

    Have you ever heard about the PFAS? Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, are human-made chemicals not found naturally in the environment. While PFAS offers various practical applications, their pervasive presence and environmental persistence raise critical concerns. PFAS molecules, known for their durability, do not decompose, leading to their accumulation in the environment and nature.…