Answers to Ten PFAS “Chemicals Forever” Questions

PFAS, a broad class of persistent synthetic chemicals, are used in manufacturing and are present in many consumer products, especially those designed to resist oil, heat and water (such as jacket illustrated). The widespread use of PFAS creates many potential routes of contamination. Photo by Marina Schauffler.

Maine faces widespread contamination from PFAS, “forever chemicals” in ubiquitous use and now polluting wells, public water supplies, farmland and food chains.

The “Invisible and Indestructible” series explores the pathways by which PFAS traverse Maine’s environment and the far-reaching impacts these long-lasting chemicals will have.

Below are answers to 10 common questions about PFAS. Read Part 1 of the series: Compound Injustice: PFAS may concentrate over time in landfills near the Penobscot Indian Reservation.

Why is exposure to PFAS a concern?

Toxicological research shows that per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) can disturb hormonal, immune and reproductive systems, and may increase the risk of various cancers. In June, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (APE) dropped his drinking water “health advisory level” for two of the most common PFAS chemicals, PFOA and PFOS, at near zero, levels too low for current technology to detect. Yet some exposure to these chemicals is now virtually unavoidable; a federal CDC report found that 97% of blood samples taken from Americans contained PFAS.

What are PFAS chemicals?

You don’t have to look far to find materials that contain PFAS. They are found in building products (such as paints and sealants), electrical equipment (such as coated wires), printing and photographic materials, metal coatings, fire-fighting foam, ammunition, shipbuilding and automotive products, pharmaceuticals and medical supplies, ski wax, artificial turf and countless household products – cleaners, adhesives, varnishes, pesticides, food storage (such as takeout and fast food wrappers), non-stick cookware, outdoor gear, electronics, stain or water resistant furniture (like sofas, mattresses and rugs) and even some clothing and personal care products, Maine is among the first states at start mandating disclosure of PFAS in productswhich is expected to come into effect in January (unless an effort by trade groups to delay the measure is successful).

How do PFAS chemicals enter waters?

Commercial and residential uses of PFAS contribute some chemicals to wastewater, but more likely comes from manufacturing. In Maine, PFAS are or have been used in the industrial production of grease and water resistant paper and board, leather products, footwear, textiles and semiconductors. The historical use of firefighting foam (designed specifically for petroleum fires) has also resulted in the contamination of groundwater and surface water. PFAS are now so ubiquitous in the water cycle that they are fall in the rain.

Why are they called “forever chemicals”?

PFAS persist in natural systems indefinitely and accumulate in bodies for years. “Persistence is the key factor that allows pollution problems to spiral out of control…” wrote a team of international scientists. “(It) allows chemicals to travel great distances, causes long-term, even lifelong exposure, and leads to higher and higher levels in the environment as long as emissions continue.” While other pollutants – such as dioxins and PCBs – are also persistent, there are far fewer of these compounds. PFAS, synthetically made chemicals with extremely strong carbon-fluorine bonds, at least in number 12,000. Most research has focused on fewer than 100 PFAS compounds, and even within this small subset, ecological impacts, physiological effects, and potential health issues differ significantly.

Why are PFAS so prevalent in Maine and not elsewhere?

Owater activist Erin Brockovich reports that Maine has some of the highest levels of PFAS contamination in water that she has seen in her work with communities across the country, perhaps because this state is at the forefront of testing. PFAS are used globally and are still actively produced, so no region is likely to escape ecological, economic and public health challenges. In the words of Jean MacRae, professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Maine, “The more we search, the fewer places we will find without contamination.”

Is the full extent of the contamination known?

While states like Maine are actively testing to determine the extent of contamination, the scope of testing does not match the estimated 4,700 PFAS compounds in current or past commercial use. The Maine Department of Environmental Protection is testing six compounds. Sampling protocols for commercial labs typically include 18 to 24 PFASs, said Linda Lee, an environmental chemist at Purdue University, while research labs can sample up to 70 compounds. “Fifty to 70 percent of what I find (in Purdue lab samples) is not tested by commercial labs, she said. She is confident that the PFAS found in standard water testing are a small subset of what can be found in soils or sewage sludge. The sludge, she said, “could potentially contain hundreds (of PFAS compounds)”.

What is Maine doing to deal with this crisis?

The short answer is a lot. The state government moved with unusual speed to tackle PFAS contamination through many measuresincluding the world’s first phased ban on the use of PFAS in most products (taking full effect in 2030), and a prohibition of spreading of sludge and sludge-based compost. State agencies openly share PFAS data collected. Testing, research and political demands have diverted untold hours and resources from agencies that would otherwise have directed them to other important challenges.

Did the makers of these chemicals know they were a problem?

PFAS were first made primarily by 3M and DuPont, chemical companies known for PFAS coatings like Scotchgard and Teflon. They knew in the 1960s from their own lab tests that these persistent chemicals posed serious health risks, but they continued to produce and market “legacy” or long-chain PFAS (those containing more carbon molecules). The companies eventually phased out two of the most common compounds: PFOA and PFOS, but instead introduced short-chain substitutes (what they called “GenX” PFAS), with fewer carbon molecules, which have been marketed as safer. Growing evidence indicates that these short-chain compounds are just as toxicand more mobile and persistent in ecosystems.

Why are these products not regulated to protect public health?

The EPA Knew the Dangers of PFAS Compounds in 2001, due to a 972-page public brief shared by attorney Robert Bilott, whose story of battling DuPont for this voluminous evidence is documented in the movie “Dark Waters” and his book “Exposure.” The agency took no substantive action until recently. Last month, the EPA recommended that PFOA and PFOS, two common PFAS chemicals that have been manufactured for decades, be included as hazardous substances under the federal Superfund program, but the agency took no action. measure to eliminate or prohibit the production of PFAS.

Is it possible to destroy these chemicals?

Any lasting solution to PFAS contamination depends on the development of technology to destroy the chemicals, turning them into harmless elements. Scientists are testing all sorts of techniques such as supercritical water oxidation, thermal regeneration, electrochemical degradation, ultrasonication, pyrolysis, and ultraviolet-initiated degradation, but nothing has progressed beyond laboratory experimentation. Some methods are very energy-intensive, and none could recover all of the PFAS currently circulating in aquatic systems, the atmosphere, and soil ecosystems. There is no simple solution on the horizon.

This project was produced with support from the Doris O’Donnell Innovations in Investigative Journalism Fellowship, awarded by the Center for Media Innovation at Point Park University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

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