What is PFAS and why is it a problem?

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A widespread effort to limit and phase out the use of “forever” chemicals called Per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) is taking over the world, especially now that the chemicals have taken a foothold in almost every material in our everyday lives. 

PFAS, a group of over 10,000 industrial chemicals, can take up to 1000 years to break down and can be found almost everywhere on Earth— from food packaging, carpeting, non-stick cookware, makeup, and clothing. 

The use of PFAS over the years has caused growing concerns for little is known of the long-term health impact of the substance on humans. 

Various state governments across Australia have urged people to limit their exposure to PFAS as much as practical. 

Easier said than done

Professor Dennis O’Carroll, managing director of the Water Research Laboratory at UNSW Sydney, painted a picture of just how widespread the use of the chemicals is in everyday life. 

“The average person doesn’t realise how much PFAS are found in everyday products. You can find it in food packaging to limit the amount of grease soaking through our burgers or to improve stain resistance in chairs and rugs,” O’Carroll said

“It’s also believed that low traces of PFAS can be found in the bloodstream of 98 per cent of the world’s population,” he added. 

PFAS are commonly used as surface treatments in non-stick cookware and solution treatment and carpets and are extensively used in firefight foams, as well. 

Due to their persistent nature, the chemicals have found their way across and through the soil over time, contaminating the surface and groundwater in areas, and introducing PFAS to waste streams, wastewater treatment facilities, and even landfills. 

“A lot of chemicals that we traditionally think about as pollutants, such as pesticides, get absorbed into the soil and tend to pollute one area and that area stays polluted,” said Professor Stuart Khan, a water expert at UNSW. 

“However, PFAS are very mobile in the environment. So, we end up having contaminated drinking water suppliers in locations where PFAS may not have contaminated the groundwater initially but just where it’s ended up because they don’t break down.”

Would’ve, could’ve, should’ve

Some studies have claimed that concentrations of PFAS have exceeded some of the most stringent health-based values even in the world’s most remote areas, such as Antarctica. 

This great war on PFAS is not an impossible battle to win, according to Professor Khan, but it will be a question of whether governments would want to invest the amount of energy, carbon footprint, and money to clean up the substances. 

Just because we can use PFAS, does not mean we should, according to Professor O’Carroll. 

“As modern consumers, if we really want to limit our use of PFAS, we need to do our research and look into what products are made from because there is PFAS in a lot of things that you wouldn’t even consider,” he said. 

There is also still the question of finding a safe yet effective substitute for PFAS.

Alternative chemicals are currently being developed as part of the global industry’s transition away from acid-based and sulphate-based chemicals. 

“However, the caveat is that we don’t know what the long-term impact of these newer chemicals is going to be 10 years down the track. It may end up causing just as many problems as the ones we’re dealing with now,” said Professor Khan.