PFAS: the scientific acronym with mainstream consequences.

What is PFAS?
PFAS also referred to as per- or polyfluoroalkyl substances, is a large group of chemicals that are necessary ingredients in many everyday appliances and products that people use. According to the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), over 9,000 PFAS have been identified. Among the most common are PFOA and PFOS, many of which have been or are being banned across the globe in response to public health warnings and environmental issues. Unfortunately, however, due to their chemical properties, companies around the world continue to pursue the production of PFAS-present goods. Coupled with their environmental persistence, PFAS does and will continue to impair the environment and public health.

How long does PFAS last?
The chemical structure of a PFAS variety such as PFOA is a long chain of 8 carbon atoms bonded to fluorine atoms. In the field of organic chemistry, carbon and fluorine form the strongest chemical bonds. Colloquially, this structure is often referred to as C8 due to the 8-carbon bond chains. As a result, PFAS chemicals are extremely difficult to break down in the environment or within the bodies of organisms, hence the well-deserved name ‘forever chemicals’. This is by no means an exaggeration, PFAS can persist far longer than other chemicals currently understood. In fact, to dismantle their chemical chains, one would need to burn a given PFAS at over 1,000 degrees Celcius.

What products are PFAS found in?
An unfortunate reality behind PFAS is that avoiding them is virtually impossible. Thanks to their stain, water and heat-resistant properties, every industry (more or less) uses PFAS in some form.

Some examples…and a few more
Pizza boxesStain-resistant furniture & carpets
Firefighting foamNon-stick appliances/cookware
Food containers/packagingRain jackets
Lipstick, eyeliner, eyeshadow & mascaraPaper & cardboard
Lotions, cleansers, nail polish & shaving creamPaint
Artificial grassVarnishes
ClothingDental floss

Coupled with the fact that PFAS can enter someone’s body by drinking, eating or breathing air containing such chemicals, it’s little surprise that studies examining concentrations in humans and wildlife have struggled to find those without PFAS.
If interested, search online ‘[my country] PFAS chemical map’ to discover where, why and to what extent you or a given community may have been exposed to forever chemicals.

Where is PFAS?
PFAS is in a few more places than you might expect. Despite the obvious areas being human-occupied land, PFAS has also been detected in some of the utmost remote areas, insignificantly affected by direct human interaction like Antarctica. Due to marine animal or bird movement patterns around the globe, PFAS has and will continue to present itself in even more isolated regions. Furthermore, The Chemical & Engineering News magazine has reported untargeted capture and analysis of previously unobservable atmospheric PFAS concentrations, indicating how forever chemicals may be traversing the planet by way of the Grasshopper Effect.
The Grasshopper Effect, commonly referred to as global distillation, is when organic or synthetic chemicals in warmer climates evaporate due to heat and are sent up into the atmosphere. Here, PFAS travel across the globe and can be deposited in cold regions like Antarctica as the atmospheric water (and pollutant) concentrations turn into rain. This has now proven to be the case for PFAS, especially pesticides.

A study released in the National Library of Medicine revealed Weddell seals – the planet’s southernmost marine mammal – had PFUnDA concentrations ranging from 0.08 to 0.23 ng/ml. Whilst PFOS, PFHxA and PFTriDA were “sporadically detected.” The abstract went on to claim the following: “We suggest that the pollutants have been subjected to long range atmospheric transportation and/or derive[d] from a local source.”

Typical human PFAS concentrations:
As of writing, no scientific papers currently provide a decisive and global estimate of human PFAS concentrations. Consequentially, the average bioaccumulation in the blog is based on a study by ScienceDirect.
In this study, 21 PFASs were analysed from 99 samples of human autopsy tissues in Catalonia, Spain. The research found PFBA concentrations most significant in the lungs and kidneys at “263 and 807 ng/g.” In the liver and brain, PFHxA was most present at 68.3 and 141 ng/g on average. PFOA, an already mentioned branch of PFAS, was greatest in the bones with a median of 20.9 ng/g. Of all the organs – at least according to these findings – the lungs “accumulated the highest concentration of PFASs.” Importantly, ScienceDirect acknowledged that further studies on the same compounds in the human body are still necessary.

What are the human health effects?
PFAS has numerous prenatal, cognitive and physical ramifications on the human body. So much so that exploring all of them in-depth, would require hundreds of scientific papers. However, here are a few conditions and diseases associated with PFAS concentrations and evidence in the form of quotes.

Health conditionsSource of evidenceQuote
InfertilityNational Library of Medicine “One of the most worrying effects of PFOS and PFOA is their associations with lower testosterone levels, similar to clinical observations in infertile men.”
Cardiovascular disease (CVD)JAMA Internal Medicine“We found that increasing serum PFOA levels are positively associated with CVD and PAD, independent of confounders such as age, sex, race/ethnicity, smoking status [etc.]”
CholesterolScienceDirect“Large differences in exposure to PFAS are associated, on average, with modest increases in cholesterol (about 10 mg/dL).”
Newborn disorders National Library of Medicine“Prenatal exposure to PFOA was associated with increased risk of ASD [Autism spectrum disorder] and ADHD in children.”

*PFAS exposures with neurodevelopmental outcomes are still inconclusive, hence a need for more research on the neurotoxicological potential of PFAS during early development.
Vaccine effectiveness & severity of COVID-19 contractionEnvironmental Working Group “The link between higher blood levels of PFAS and reduced antibody production following vaccination has been observed in studies of both children and adults.”

“[Harvard] School of Public Health found that higher levels of PFAS in the blood, specifically PFBA, were associated with increased severity of Covid-19 infections.”
Breast cancerBreast Cancer Prevention Partners“Several PFAS chemicals, especially PFOA, have been linked to increased risk for breast cancer [due to hormone disruption and likely carcinogenic traits].”

Environmental effects:
PFAS, as previously mentioned, is present in many everyday items but can also be found in the air, soil and water. According to ScienceDirect, when PFAS is present in the soil, plants take it up via their roots, which harms plant cell structure and organelle function. According to the paper, numerous “biochemical activities in plant cells are perturbed, such as photosynthesis, gene expression, protein synthesis, carbon and nitrogen metabolisms.”
In waterways, the presence of PFAS can lead to fish and mammalian deaths. Another study by ScienceDirect on edible United States fish found “PFOS levels exceeded screening values to protect mammals in 83% of whole fish examined.” In Australia, the EPA announced fish “in Victorian waterbodies were found to contain varying PFAS concentrations, with some exceeding FSANZ [Food Standards Australia New Zealand] trigger points for investigation.” Moreover, Environmental Health News claims that PFAS-based finishes on clothing run off in washing machines, heading into wastewater treatment plants and into waterways.

Fortunately, however, a study by the CSIRO found native Australian plants such as the Phragmites Australis, known as the common reed, can detox waterways of PFAS contaminants by 42% – 53%. The University of South Australia found “native plants can significantly remediate PFAS pollutants through floating wetlands to create healthier environments for all.” Although, a concern regarding plant uptake of PFAS – as mentioned before – is that the terrestrial animals that later feed on such flora may help introduce higher-than-advised contaminants into the terrestrial food chain.

PFAS is yet again, another class of chemicals to be wary of. The 1930s, when PFAS was first invented, provided hope for consumers worldwide; helping ease the workout of scrubbing pans, improve the insulation properties of firefighting foam, and transition the world into a convenient ‘use and throw’ society. Though typically, what seems too good to be true is. Accelerate to 2022 and PFAS can be found in virtually every product one touches. Non-stick cookware, glistening water-proof desks, pizza boxes, makeup etc. From Toronto to Melbourne, Beijing to Mount Everest, the presence and persistence of these forever chemicals is truly horrifying. What actions we do to reduce, replace and remember PFAS is entirely up to us. Actions we must take very seriously.

Released on the 21st of October 2022. -KJDJ
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