PFAS: The persistence of “forever chemicals”

PFAS: The persistence of “forever chemicals”
Photo by Michelle Deng/ UCSD Guardian

A student puts in her contact lenses, applies mascara, paints her nails, then wraps herself in a North Face jacket to brave the morning chill on her walk to class.

Unknowingly, she is coating her entire body in PFAS. 

PFAS, or per- and polyfluorinated substances, are a group of chemicals made up of a long spine of carbon atoms bonded to fluorine, enabling them to resist heat and repel nearly everything including water, oil, and grease. 

Typically, PFAS are used to make non-stick products, like non-stick cookware, or waterproof clothes such as North Face or Lululemon jackets. 

What is unique about these chemicals, besides their ability to repel unwanted elements, is their persistence. The carbon-fluorine bond found in PFAS is one of the strongest bonds found in nature. This means that these bonds do not break down with heat or light nor by any natural means. Consequently, PFAS fall under the class of “forever chemicals.” 

Discovered in the United States in 1938, PFAS were first utilized as components in the Manhattan Project to build the atomic bomb during World War II. PFAS were then used as a protectant coating on tanks during the war, allowing them to resist heat, oil, and water. 

After the war, chemical companies began to wonder how they could market PFAS to the average consumer. If they worked on the battlefield, why not in the home? 

In 1951, chemical conglomerate 3M began selling PFOA, one of the most widespread PFAS, to the chemical giant DuPont which then used the chemical to make Teflon non-stick cookware (think: all of grandma’s pans). 

Teflon made cooking, and cleaning up afterward, easy and convenient. However, as DuPont quickly discovered, this convenience held an insidious price behind its sizable profit.

By 1969, DuPont and 3M discovered that PFAS, such as PFOA found in Teflon, accumulated in humans and animals, and increased the size of livers in rats, rabbits, and dogs. Further, these “forever chemicals” did not degrade in the environment. Despite discovering this, DuPont continued to sell PFOA in Teflon to the American public for nearly 50 years.

Dozens of tests were conducted by 3M and DuPont proving the harmful nature of PFOA and other PFAS chemicals, including birth defects in humans. In 1993, DuPont had a viable chemical candidate to replace C8, one that was less toxic and remained in the body for a shorter period of time. However, DuPont decided against it, because “the risk was too great” — specifically, the risk to their bottom line. 

At the time, Teflon products were worth nearly $1 billion in annual revenue.  

American consumers were unaware of the toxins in their kitchens for decades, until 1998 when a cattle farmer named Wilbur Tennant noticed something strange happening on his farm in Parkersburg, West Virginia. 

His cows were dying. En masse. 

Tennant’s cows were suffering kidney, liver, stomach, and heart diseases. He believed that the DuPont chemical company, which up until recently operated a site in Parkersburg more than 35 times the size of the Pentagon and was cushioned next to his farm, was responsible. A creek ran through the DuPont landfill next to Tennant’s farm, the same creek that ran down to a pasture where his cows grazed. Tennant’s attorney, Rob Bilott, discovered that his client’s cows were being poisoned by PFOA, the chemical used to manufacture Teflon

DuPont’s own instructions, written decades prior, had specified that PFOA was not to be flushed into surface water or sewers. Despite this, DuPont dumped hundreds of thousands of pounds of PFOA powder through the outfall pipes of the Parkersburg facility into the Ohio River. The company also dumped 7,100 tons of PFOA-laced sludge into open, unlined pits on the Parkersburg property. The chemical seeped into the ground, entering the local water table which supplied drinking water to over 100,000 people in Parkersburg and surrounding communities.

Teflon was manufactured with PFOA until 2013, when legal pressure forced the company to change its ways. DuPont now manufactures Teflon products with a different PFAS called “GenX,” a chemical that the EPA has confirmed has harmful effects on the kidneys, blood, immune system, and liver.

“Just use cast iron,” said Dr. Carolyn Kurle, a conservation biologist and professor at UC San Diego. “Teflon isn’t worth the risk.”

Today, there are more than 200 different industries that continue to use PFAS in the manufacture of their products. 

PFAS are found in household cleaning products, paints, microwaveable popcorn bags, contact lenses, dental floss, mascara, nail polish and other cosmetics, and flame retardants used in furniture. Manufacturing facilities, including electronic, textile, and certain paper companies, all use PFAS. 

Most stain-proof or waterproof fabrics, including items from REI, Nike, Columbia, Lululemon, and The North Face are manufactured with PFAS. Food packaging used by multiple chains including Taco Bell, Pizza Hut, KFC, and Subway are also lined with PFAS. Some of these companies, such as Lululemon, The North Face, and Taco Bell, have made commitments to phase out PFAS from their products in the coming years. 

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, PFAS are even found in food products, such as fish caught from water contaminated by PFAS and in dairy products from livestock exposed to PFAS. 

According to the Centers for Disease Control, PFAS affect reproduction, immune function, and can injure the liver. Further studies have shown that PFAS cause thyroid disease, hypertension, ulcerative colitis, decreased response to vaccines, and several cancers including kidney and testicular

“The two most studied PFAS, PFOA and PFOS, are now classified by the WHO as carcinogenic,” said Dr. Patrick Byrne, a professor of biology and environmental science at Liverpool John Moores University.

So if a student avoids PFAS in products, they should be able to avoid exposure, right? 

A student may be able to mitigate their personal exposure, but the reality is, PFAS are likely already in their blood. 

“99% of humans have PFAS in their blood,” Kurle said. 

The CDC has found varying amounts of PFAS chemicals in most peoples’ blood. The only blood samples without PFAS in them? Those taken from army recruits in 1950 at the start of the Korean War, before Teflon and other PFA-manufactured products became widespread.

Studies have even shown PFAS to be present in breast milk

“These chemicals are lipophilic, meaning they like to bind with fats,” Kurle said. “When a mammal is nursing, they convert some of their food that they’re eating into milk, but they also convert fats that they’ve been storing into milk for their young. A lot of toxins can be dumped onto offspring, especially the first born.” 

According to Byrne, “PFAS have been slowly accumulating in environments around the world since the 1950s.”

“They have been detected in water, sediment, soil, in airborne particles, in Antarctica and even in rainwater all across the world,” Byrne said. “We are now detecting them in wildlife too, for example in top predators like polar bears and killer whales, which indicates these chemicals are accumulating in ecosystems and food chains.”

Kurle agrees. Recently, she has been studying California condors and wondering why some condors, specifically coastal condors that feed on marine mammals, have had reduced reproductive success. 

The culprit?

“We found extremely high levels of legacy pollutants, or forever chemicals, in coastal condors foraging on marine mammals,” Kurle said. “Those exposed to pollutants have chicks at half the rate compared to those not exposed to pollutants.”

For decades, forever chemicals, like PFAS, were dumped into sewers, and these pollutants went into the ocean.

“They’re ubiquitous. PFAS ruin the water supply,” Kurle added. 

If you are curious about the level of PFAS in your area’s water, you can visit the following address: San Diego county has overall safe PFAS levels in drinking water, though anywhere north of Temecula is neon blue on this map, indicating high PFAS levels. Most of the country is peppered in neon blue dots. 

Should the onus be on individual citizens to siphon their toxin intake?

Since companies seem reluctant to remove PFAS from their products voluntarily or to dispose of PFAS safely, several scientists and ecological advocacy groups have argued for the need for legislation limiting manufacture of PFAS to only essential items. These essential items include medical devices and semiconductors in computer chips where alternatives to PFAS do not yet exist. A lack of medical devices would be detrimental to public health, and computer chips are essential for many reasons, the utmost of which may be homeland security. 

But do mascara, dental floss, and the bags that wrap Subway sandwiches need to be manufactured with PFAS?

Many PFAS may simply be used for convenience. 

In 2023, the European Union committed to phasing out all PFAS, allowing their use only where they are proven to be essential to society.

New Zealand has passed legislation to phase out PFAS in cosmetics by 2026. 

Bills from recent years in the U.S. have focused on designating specific PFAS as “hazardous” without providing much regulation for companies using and disposing of these chemicals.

Are PFAS bans and regulations for companies plausible or possible in the United States? If they are, it seems that no one wants to talk about it.

The UCSD Guardian reached out to Assemblymember Dr. Akilah Weber, who authored Assembly Bill 727 in 2023. The bill proposed a restriction on PFAS in cleaning products, but was vetoed by Governor Gavin Newsom this February. Weber declined to comment. Other representatives, when asked about specific legislation, declined to comment as well.

In November of 2023, 3M and DuPont were successful in the class action lawsuit brought against them by thousands of residents who had been exposed to DuPont’s discarded PFAS waste and subsequently had suffered a slew of health consequences. The courts claimed the PFAS could not be traced “directly” to these companies despite years of evidence. Thus, DuPont and 3M were not held financially liable.

Kurle has a theory. 

“My guess is it always comes back to money being involved,” Kurle said. “Because as human beings, why do we allow this to happen? Why wouldn’t we be outraged? What is the thing that would stop us from wanting this to be done? Someone’s making money and PFAS are convenient.”

But there is hope. Some scientists are working to degrade PFAS in the environment. 

Dr. William Dichtel is a chemistry professor at Northwestern University. Dichtel’s lab discovered a new type of polymer that is derived from corn that can remove organic pollutants, particularly PFAS, from water. 

“PFAS need to be broken down to fluoride ions and safe byproducts,” Dichtel said. 

Dr. Christopher Sales, a professor of environmental engineering at Drexel University, agreed. An active and evolving area of research in his lab involves the degradation and transport of PFAS

“The goal is to break them down into minerals or safe byproducts,” Sales said.

“In terms of destruction, there are a lot of very early stage destruction technologies that are starting to be evaluated at the pilot scale in various contexts,” Ditchel added. “Essentially, there are different ways to apply a lot of energy to the PFAS and cause them to break down. Some of them are mechanical, electrical, or chemical.”

Dichtel claimed that there are many applications of PFAS that are simply used out of convenience “for making a product just slightly more desirable for the consumer.”

He continued, “Societal cost does not justify the use of these compounds. In reality, we all will be paying for this in some form or another. Hopefully, the people who have profited off of PFAS will be financially responsible, but in reality, there will be a societal cost that is borne by us all.”

Is there anything students can do?

“The cat’s out of the bag, we’re all exposed to PFAS,” Kurle said. “Now all we can do as individuals is try to mitigate our exposure through certain choices we make and things we buy.” 

Although it feels as if students may be voiceless, Kurle encourages students to vote for individuals who are trying to do their best for the environment and to pay attention to what groups are trying to profit off of toxins that are degrading the environment. 

“Your dollar and your voice matters. Give it a try to not use cosmetics. Try using natural cleaning products,” Kurle said. “Give it a try to stop buying PFAS-lined microwaveable popcorn bags and make your own popcorn. If you’re in the market for new furniture, look for leather or fake leather instead of fabric.”

Kurle also encourages students to stay hopeful, even despite the overwhelming reality of PFAS. 

“As you move through the world, just pay attention,” Kurle said. “This knowledge gives you amazing power. When people find things out, they get a little bit outraged and then their voices get louder.”

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Michelle Deng, Artist
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    Maria WardMar 26, 2024 at 5:28 am

    This post is an eye-opening exploration of the pervasive use and harmful effects of PFAS chemicals, shedding light on their presence in everyday products and their detrimental impact on health and the environment. The call for legislative action and individual awareness is crucial in addressing this issue. For those seeking alternatives, translation services like Pangea Global offer accessible tools to navigate information and advocate for change across language barriers. Let’s empower ourselves with knowledge and take steps towards a safer, PFAS-free future.