Unveiling PFAS: The Hidden Hazard of Forever Chemicals
Perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances are known as PFAS, also dubbed “forever chemicals”, and they have effects that may negatively impact humans and the planet we live on.
It’s like a science fiction plot.
A dangerous material accumulates throughout the world for decades, largely unbeknown to the human race. When humanity does eventually recognise the danger, it faces major scientific challenges, coupled with delay and obfuscation from within.
Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, more commonly known as PFAS, are toxic, and are also known as “forever chemicals” because they persist for so long before degrading, in some cases for longer than one thousand years. Following their first manufacture in 1947, by the 1960s they were being used to make Teflon frying pans, and then spread to a range of other products and industrial uses. Their usefulness is due to their remarkable properties, being resistant to water, oil, stains and heat.
They are also a growing environmental and health headache, bioaccumulating in humans and animals. Health risks that have now come to light include an elevated risk of cancer, reproductive damage, immune system damage, liver damage, birth defects, low birth weight, thyroid disease and elevated cholesterol. A 2022 study found a 4.5-fold increased likelihood of liver cancer among people with the highest measured blood PFAS levels.
Of the 12,000 different chemicals in this family, the most attention has been directed towards PFOS (perfluorooctane sulfonic acid) and PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid), considered to be among the most toxic. Regulation of PFAS has until now largely been hampered by a focus on just four of them, instead of tackling them as a class of chemicals in its entirety. This is liable to result in a game of “whack-a-mole”, where banning or phasing out one PFAS is likely to result in another popping up
in its place.
The role of the chemical industry
American multinational 3M, the earliest PFAS manufacturer, announced in 2000 that it was phasing out PFOS and PFOA, a move that failed to curb production, given that other companies continued to make them. Recently, 3M announced a plan to stop making all PFAS by the end of 2025. 3M’s PFAS plants have been identified as a source of groundwater contamination in the Minneapolis area.
DuPont is the subject of the powerful 2019 film Dark Waters, starring Mark Ruffalo. This recreated a real legal case concerning the DuPont PFAS factory in Parkersburg, West Virginia, that contaminated drinking water for 70,000 people in West Virginia and Ohio following the dumping of PFOA sludge in a local landfill.
The industry strategy of spreading doubt about the risk from these chemicals is a tactic that has been compared to previous experiences with industries such as tobacco, asbestos and fossil fuels. Neither Australia nor New Zealand has ever had any PFAS manufacturing, which limits the extent of the contamination challenges that both countries face.
These chemicals also deserve the label of “everywhere chemicals”, given the bewildering range of products where they are found. Above a threshold of about 100 parts per million (ppm), they are likely to have been deliberately added. However, there are also many ways in which PFAS can accidentally find their way into a product, generally without the manufacturer’s knowledge, and its unintentional presence will generally be reflected in a concentration of under 100ppm.
The following are among the many product types that may contain PFAS.
- Clothing and textiles. Those labelled stain-resistant or water-resistant are far more likely to have PFAS. Tests point to its presence in yoga leggings and sport bras, both of which tested positive to organic fluorine. In 2023, US period underwear company Thinx settled a class action lawsuit over PFAS detected in its products at up to 3624ppm. In Australia, Modibodi and Bonds have both denied deliberately using PFAS in similar products.
- Food packaging. It may be found in takeaway packaging, paper plates, paperboard, pet food bags, fast-food wrappers, compostable dishware and microwave popcorn bags. Here its purpose is to repel wet or oily food that could otherwise disintegrate the material. Australian testing has found the highest concentrations in sugarcane bagasse packaging, and it was absent or in the lowest concentrations in paperboard (pizza boxes, takeaway boxes etc). On the bright side, some large fast-food companies, including McDonalds and Burger King, are in the process of phasing out PFAS from food packaging across their global operations, generally with a deadline of 2025 or earlier.
- Food. So far, trace levels of toxisity have been detected in a range of foods, including American pasta sauce, ketchup and cooking. US class action lawsuits over the presence of PFAS have targeted the Simply Orange Juice Company and the beverage company Bolthouse Farms. Some American farmers have identified PFAS contamination on their land from chemically tainted human sewage sludge misleadingly marketed by the wastewater sector as safe because it wants to avoid the expense of landfill.
- Stain-resistant carpeting. Some carpets use the PFAS product Scotchgard for built-in protection, a chemical that is also available as a fabric and upholstery spray. The competitor product Stainmaster is now PFAS-free.
- Cosmetics. It is added to some products to make them smoother, longer-lasting and easier to spread. This has resulted in some lawsuits focused on misleading advertising.
- Paints and other coatings.
- Climbing ropes.
- Fishing lines.
- Guitar strings.
- Artificial turf.
- Hand sanitiser.
- Electrical wires.
- Floor wax.
- Tennis racquets.
- Bicycle lubricating oil.
- Anti-fogging sprays for glasses.
- Non-stick frying pans. Teflon is still found on pans available to purchase today, although many other non-stick alternatives are available. Human risks from the use of Teflon are considered low, but it is wise to avoid overheating the pan, which can release fumes. Birds in particular are at risk from these fumes if cooking at a fairly high heat.
- Dental floss. Testing discovered that Oral-B Glide, made from the PFAS PTFE, is about 25 per cent PFAS. Tests on three other brands (Colgate Total Mint Waxed Dental Floss, Solimo Extra Comfort Mint Dental Floss (from Amazon) and Up & Up (from Target). Smooth Slide Floss Mint also yielded between 7.4 and 9.4 per cent PFAS. Beyond these four, other positive detections were at trace levels.
- Toilet paper. An American test of 17 diverse toilet roll products (such as virgin, recycled, bamboo and sugar cane) found that four contained PFAS levels indicative of unintentional contamination. The positive detections were in every type except sugar cane.
One of the most notorious uses of PFAS is in firefighting foam as a fire suppressant for chemical fires. It has been used in training as well as firefighting, and this has resulted in pollution hotspots around defence bases, airports, firefighter training centres and fire stations, with contamination spreading into the surrounding environment.
Three significant RAAF base hotspots in Australia are at Oakey (Queensland), Williamtown (NSW) and Katherine (NT), all of which are the subject of ongoing Department of Defence PFAS clean-ups. In 2021, the government paid compensation totalling A$212.5 million to these affected communities, but it was first necessary for them to mount a legal class action in order to receive it. In New Zealand, contamination is still at the investigation stage, and has been found in groundwater and surface water at the
Woodbourne and Ohakea RNZAF bases.
Today, PFAS firefighting foam is slowly being phased out. It is restricted in New Zealand, and will be banned in 2025. In Australia the states are starting to restrict it too. Environmentally safer alternatives are already available.
In the human and natural environment
These substances are found in soil, air and water. It occurs in indoor dust, along with other chemical nasties. Even in pristine areas that are untouched by humans, such as the Arctic, PFAS are present in rainfall and snow. In a 2023 study, 26 PFAS chemicals were found in Norwegian Arctic ice at the Svalbard archipelago.
Where it occurs in tap water above “safe” levels, this is often from industrial contamination. Countries affected include Italy and the US, where about 200 million people drink PFAS-contaminated water. These chemicals can be filtered using reverse osmosis or a high-quality activated carbon filter. Recently, the US EPA’s non-binding “advisory” of 70 ppt (parts per trillion) was tightened an enormous amount, to 0.02 ppt for PFOS and 0.004 ppt for PFOA, indicative of a radically changing perspective on their positional for harm. Bore water is another contamination risk if substantial PFAS groundwater pollution has historically occurred nearby. Rainwater across the planet is believed by scientists to exceed US advisories.
PFAS Migrating into the body
Testing has shown that these chemicals are getting into the body, and this can be via skin contact, breathing or ingestion. US Government testing has found three of them in the blood of more than 98 per cent of Americans, and very high incidences are likely in other industrialised nations. Babies are receiving them from their mothers via umbilical cord blood and in breast milk following birth. They have the effect of impersonating fatty acids in the body, affecting metabolism. “Long-chain” chemicals such as PFOS and PFOA have a half-life in the body of a few years, after which about 50 per cent will have been excreted or broken down. “Short-chain” chemicals have a half-life of generally less than a year, and this can be as little as a few days.
Many firefighters possess elevated levels, and have a greater risk of PFAS-related health problems, due to their historic exposure to PFAS firefighting foams. In Australia, the firefighting sector originated the idea of regularly donating blood as a means of reducing the PFAS body burden, and this has been observed to be effective. With no restriction on the PFAS content of donated blood, there are no obstacles to doing this, although passing on PFAS to another person
Depressing evidence collected from 125 peer-reviewed studies shows that at least 330 different animal species, on every continent except Antarctica, have been contaminated with PFAS.
Regulators and scientists
In the US, which is probably the most PFAS-contaminated country, these chemicals are still largely unregulated, although individual states such as Washington, California and Maine are taking their own action independently. Uloma Uche, an environmental health science fellow with the US-based Environmental Working Group, has his own regulatory wish list. This involves banning all non-essential uses of PFAS, establishing limits for all PFAS compounds in drinking water, stopping industrial discharges and creating limits for PFAS in food.
The EU is working on a proposed ban on PFAS manufacture and use. In Belgium in 2021, the Flanders Environment Agency ordered the closure of a 3M plant after excessively high PFOS levels were detected in the blood of local residents. This appears to be the first example anywhere in the world of a regulator stopping the production of PFAS.
As a part of the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants, the UN has identified three PFAS chemicals to be eliminated: PFOS, PFOA and another called PFHxS. While New Zealand has ratified this measure, Australia is one of small number of countries yet to do so.
The 2014 Madrid Statement on PFAS chemicals was signed by more than 250 scientists from 38 countries, and called for them to be restricted to essential uses. Unfortunately this was followed by nearly a decade of inaction.
A familar story
PFAS are part of a familiar story that has been repeated over the decades with a number of chemicals that later proved to be toxic or harmful. DDT, PCBs and BPA are some examples.
To reduce exposure, here are some tips.
- Avoid products likely to have PFAS intentionally added, especially food packaging. Also pay particular attention to fabrics that are labelled “stain-resistant” or “water-resistant”.
- When in doubt, ask the company involved about its presence, while being wary of the possibility of a misleading response focused on PFOS and PFOA to the exclusion of other PFAS chemicals.
- Vacuum regularly to remove affected dust.
- Look into whether it is recommended to avoid eating fish caught in any of your local waterways.
- At the political level, get behind moves to ban all non-essential uses of PFAS.
Toxic-Free Future (USA) toxicfreefuture.org/toxic-chemicals/pfas-forever-chemicals
Mamavation (USA testing result articles) mamavation.com/pfas-forever-chemical-consumer-studies
PFAS Exchange (USA information resource) pfas-exchange.org
PFAS Project (USA) pfasproject.com
Australian PFAS Chemicals Map
Australian Government PFAS information portal pfas.gov.au
Martin Oliver is a writer and researcher based in Lismore.