An FAQ on PFAS: Definition, Sources, Benefits and Risks
What are Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS) and why do they matter to you? If you’ve heard of them but aren’t really sure what they are, you aren’t alone. PFAS compounds have been part of commercial products and manufacturing for decades and have been increasingly linked with health and environmental risk, thus drawing increasing levels of public scrutiny and regulation. PFAS has been more regularly in the news and has been covered even by John Oliver's show recently here.
The issues around PFAS are complex and there is a staggering amount of information out there that is updating all the time. To help bring clarity around a critical issue for businesses, Antea Group USA has created this PFAS FAQ guide.
Where Do PFAS Come From?
In the 1930s, a scientist developed new chemical compounds that would come to be known as PFAS. These compounds don’t occur naturally but are made up of chains of carbon-fluorine bonds, one of the strongest bonds in nature. In fact, they are so persistent that they are often called “forever chemicals.”
The first commercial application of PFAS was Teflon in the 1940s. Since the 1940s, PFAS have been used in thousands of commercial, industrial, and military applications all over the globe and they continue to be developed.
What Do PFAS Do?
PFAS is an umbrella term that covers thousands of chemicals with similar chemical structures. PFAS have some or all of the following properties:
- Repel oil, water, and other liquids
- Temperature resistance
- Friction reduction
- Stability and durability
PFAS are used in many products and applications including:
- Food packaging and non-stick cookware: They repel grease and keep food sealed. Microwave popcorn bags are a good example.
- Coating and Insulation: Think electrical wire coatings, mechanical wear reduction for metals, and paints for corrosion prevention.
- Fire fighting: Aqueous Film Forming Foam (AFFF) is used to fight hazardous flammable liquid fires.
- Clothing and textiles: Including waterproofed outerwear, stain-resistant carpets and textiles, and Personal Protective Equipment (PPE).
- Manufacturing processes: for industries such as semiconductor, plastics, composite resins, and more.
PFAS are part of thousands of products and manufacturing processes. Though some PFAS have been phased out, banned, or limited, others continue to be used in new product development globally.
What Are the Health Risks of PFAS?
The short answer is: there’s mounting evidence that some PFAS pose health risks but we don’t know everything yet. It is certain that PFAS enter the bodies of humans and animals in many different ways and then they stay there for a long time. The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) highlights the following risks:
A large number of studies have examined possible relationships between levels of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in blood and harmful health effects in people. However, not all of these studies involved the same groups of people, the same type of exposure, or the same PFAS. These different studies therefore reported a variety of health outcomes. Research involving humans suggests that high levels of certain PFAS may lead to the following:
- Increased cholesterol levels
- Decreased vaccine response in children
- Changes in liver enzymes
- Increased risk of high blood pressure or pre-eclampsia in pregnant women
- Small decreases in infant birth weights
- Increased risk of kidney or testicular cancer
- PFAS have been found in human blood in studies worldwide.
Many other scientific and regulatory bodies cite similar risks. The emphasis here is risk, not definite cause and effect. We are sure that some PFAS chemicals are harmful, we just haven’t nailed down all the specifics yet.
Environmental Risk of PFAS
Environmental risks are just as difficult to determine as human health risks but there are several main concerns:
- PFAS easily get into water supplies and bodies of water but are very difficult to get out.
- PFAS can be taken up by plants and can build up in the bodies of fish and wild animals which could potentially also pose human health risk if consumed.
- PFAS aren’t naturally occurring so we just don’t know how they interact in natural systems.
- Safe disposal procedures are incredibly expensive and difficult to monitor since PFAS are able to spread quickly and at great distances from the source in so many different ways (e.g. air, water, soil leaching).
As with human health risk, environmental risks are still being assessed but the evidence is mounting that PFAS can be harmful to the environment. PFAS in drinking water continues to be an area of greatest concern.
Check out the full article on Antea Group USA's website for more on the benefits of PFAS and implications to your business.
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