Phasing Out PFAS: A Necessary Challenge

PFAS, or per and poly-fluoroalkyl, chemicals have almost magical properties: they resist heat, repel oil and water, and keep stains at bay. These attributes have led to their use across everyday products like nonstick pans, refrigerators, waterproof clothes, food packaging, and firefighting foam, to name a few. 

But the PFAS’ molecular structures also allow them to persist in the environment and human bodies long after disposal.

With links to cancer, hormone disruption, high cholesterol, and other concerning health effects, PFAS’ alarming ubiquity has raised growing alarm. 

Phasing out PFAS is no small feat, but curbing usage and contamination is imperative to reduce long-term harm.

PFAS Health and Environmental Hazards

Bioaccumulation of PFAS compounds in the body can trigger an array of concerning effects, from thyroid disorders to decreased vaccine efficacy and fertility issues. 

According to TorHoerman Law, many studies have associated high PFAS contamination with increased risks of liver, kidney, and pancreatic cancer. Even low doses have proven to disrupt hormonal functions and fluctuate cholesterol levels.

What makes these chemicals most dangerous is how they spread through the food chain, once released into the environment. PFAS binds to organic materials, allowing uptake from soil or water by plants and small organisms at the base of the chain. 

Livestock and fish biomagnify certain PFAS, concentrating the chemicals as they are passed upward. This sets the stage for a considerable accumulation in human fat cells and organs.

Compounding matters is PFAS and its variants’ persistence once they are emitted, especially for phased-out legacy varieties like PFOS, PFNA, and PFOA. Resistant to breakdown, these “forever chemicals” cycle unceasingly between environmental reservoirs and living tissues. 

Blood serum tests today reveal almost all Americans still carry these banned PFAS varieties within their bodies. The slow elimination of already restricted compounds shows long-term exposures, even from supposedly reduced sources.

The Pervasive Presence of PFAS

The diversity within the PFAS chemical family has enabled expansive integration across industrial and consumer products. 

Various PFAS are critical in textiles, cookware, electronics, and firefighting foams like aqueous film-forming foams (AFFF). AFFF containing PFAS was heavily used for decades by military personnel and at airports, releasing PFAS through training exercises and real emergencies.

Multiple studies have traced PFAS water contamination and serious illnesses to these sites. It took a firefighter foam lawsuit against the companies producing AFFF for the military to acknowledge their negligence and mistake. 

Outside such hotspots, PFAS-laden consumer goods also introduce low-level contamination discarded in landfill seepage and wash waters. Food and packaging are another major exposure pathway, with PFAS traces found across fast food wrappers, commercial breads, and processed snack items.

The Monumental Challenge of Removing PFAS

Around 75% of water and stain proof products in the world contain PFAS chemicals in varying proportions, reflecting their monopoly on everyday products. Substituting them is not easy. 

Moreover, there exists a vast array of PFAS compounds, each with its own unique response to various treatment technologies. Take, for instance, PFOS (Perfluorooctane Sulfonic Acid), a chemical employed in industrial applications and even found in certain consumer goods like food packaging. 

While PFOS can be effectively eliminated from drinking water using common treatment methods, the same cannot be said for PFBA (perfluorobutanoic acid), another PFAS compound utilized for similar purposes. PFBA poses a greater challenge for treatment due to its smaller molecular size and differing chemical properties.

Replacement chemicals exhibiting PFAS properties of oil and water resistance and surfactant behaviors still prove extremely difficult to formulate. 

Biodegradable yet effective alternatives remain limited for most applications, and newly studied compounds often manifest other toxicity issues with long-term use. Even the next-generation “short-chain” PFAS like GenX display alarming persistence.

Destroying PFAS once dispersed requires incineration at extremely high temperatures under specialized hazardous waste facilities. This means removing traces now embedded across entire buildings, soil, or waterways—a rather impossible task. 

Even though eliminating these ‘forever’ chemicals might be a distant dream, efforts are being made to mitigate their impact.

Action Towards PFAS Phase-Out

From policy regulations to clean technology investments, interventions to curb PFAS are accelerating worldwide. In the US, in August 2023, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) established a PFAS testing program mandating water utilities screen for permissible levels of 29 PFAS compounds and lithium. 

The drinking water health advisories (HA) limit sets permissible exposure levels of PFOA to 0.02 parts per trillion (PPT), over 3500 times lower than the previous guideline. These strict standards aim to pressure filtration upgrades nationwide.

Moreover, the EPA’s PFAS Action Plan outlines support for state-level standard setting and identifies categories of PFAS uses that may be restricted until safety data expands. Multiple states have accordingly enacted PFAS consumer product or discharge limitations beyond federal regulation. 

The future looks bright. Breakthroughs around short-chain fluoropolymers, silicone, or hydrocarbon-based chemistries are emerging to replace previous PFAS across textiles and food packaging. Advancing filtration technologies, like the GAC adsorption technique, also bring promise. 

So, it is a harsh truth that the unhinged and unregulated use of PFAS has caused severe health and environmental problems. But there is hope. Cross-functional efforts spanning regulatory guardrails, scientific innovation, and public awareness can lay the foundations of limited PFAS dependence.

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