What are Forever Chemicals?
And where are they found?
Humans tend to have an affinity for convenience. We also have the creative and intellect to invent things that make our lives easier. The Industrial Revolution(s) provide evidence that we’re constantly inventing new things to improve our lives. However, the long-term costs associated with these new inventions are not taken into consideration because we become blinded by the benefits of the new conveniences.
One of the more-recent examples is a group of chemicals that have been called “forever chemicals”. Huge chemical companies have, since the 1930s, been producing this group of chemicals known as PFAS (per- and polyfluroalkyl substances). There are over 4000 of these chemicals out there! The PFAS chemical group can be subdivided into PFOA, PFOS and GenX groups, so if you see those names anywhere, they’re all part of the PFAS category.
From a chemistry viewpoint, these chemicals contain both carbon (C) and fluorine (F), and the C-F bond is one of the strongest bonds in chemistry. PFAS have a unique property, in that their chemical structure has a hydrophobic tail (meaning it avoids water) and a hydrophilic head (meaning it likes to be in water). This means that PFAS have a tendency to attach to interfaces (surfaces).
These unique properties allow PFAS to provide many conveniences in our day-to-day lives. One example is the non-stick cooking pan. No one likes to scrape food off a pan after cooking! The invention of Teflon provided us with a convenient way to cook that allows for cooking with less fat and easy cleaning! Another example is in water-proof clothing. Gore-Tex has historically contained PFAS (though Gore-Tex has been shifting away from PFAS chemicals).
And now for the bad news…
PFAS have been shown to cause increased risk in: liver damage, low birth weight, birth defects, high cholesterol, cancer and reductions in the body’s immune system. PFAS have evolved so quickly that research on the toxicity of PFAS can’t keep up (with over 4000 PFAS).
As stated above, the carbon-fluorine bond is very strong. This is bad for the environment because it means these chemicals are persistent (i.e., they don’t degrade readily).
So we have a group of thousands of chemicals that are known to be toxic to humans (and other life forms) and don’t degrade easily. It’s no wonder that this group of chemicals has been called “forever chemicals”. PFAS have been found in drinking water, air, soils, food, wildlife. One researcher has stated that it is likely that everyone has PFAS in their body. This may not mean we will all get sick from it, but it’s definitely not a good thing.
In the USA in 1998, multiple lawsuits were filed against the chemical company DuPont, who produced Teflon at a plant in West Virginia. Local farmers, company workers and residents claimed to have suffered illnesses linked to PFAS pollution from the DuPont, which has since settled over 3,500 lawsuits for over $600 million. Leaked internal documents revealed that DuPont knew about the dangers of these chemicals as far back as 1961. Plus they knew in 1984 that the chemicals were present in the local water supply and in dust from factory chimneys. They did not, however, disclose this information to workers or the public. There’s now a book (see below) and a movie (Dark Waters, 2019) about this issue with DuPont.
There’s also a documentary called The Devil We Know (2018) that provides details about DuPont’s production of PFAS and how they dumped more than 1.7 million pounds of these chemicals into the environment, including through outflow pipes into the Ohio River.
Clearly, we cannot trust corporations to act in our best interest. If there’s money to be made at the expense of human health, profits will always come first. When news like this Dupont story comes out, it makes me think that there are likely countless similar cases that just haven’t become public knowledge yet (an earlier movie, Erin Brockovich (2000) covers a similar case, not with PFAS, but with chromium as the toxic substance). Another movie, A Civil Action (1998) tells the true story of how an industrial solvent from tanneries contaminated groundwater aquifers in Massachusetts. In this case, the contaminant wasn’t PFAS, but it was a chlorinated solvent. As a result, there were several cases of leukemia. The movie details the class action lawsuit, centering around the lawyer for the families. There’s also a book with the same title.
It seems like PFAS are here to stay, despite the fact that chemical companies are shifting away from producing PFAS. In 2009, DuPont began developing a chemical called GenX to replace PFAS. GenX was later found to affect our immune system. The problem is that chemicals are produced and put to use before any toxicity testing.
One of the biggest uses of PFAS has been in aqueous fire-fighting foam (AFFF), which is a fire suppressant. AFFF is mainly used in aviation and the oil industry and it’s very effective. It works by creating a film that spreads across the fire to extinguish the flame. Fortunately, there are alternatives to PFAS for AFFF.
There are scientists around the world working on PFAS-related research. They are studying the toxicity and long-term effects of exposure, as well as different ways to clean up these chemicals from our water and air. Despite this, I believe we’re going to have to get used to living with PFAS; it has been reported that 98% of Americans have PFAS in their blood. PFAS has been found in air, water, fish, soil around the world.
What can we do? Here’s what I’m trying:
when buying cookware, avoid any label that says “non stick” or “Teflon”
avoid things like fast-food packaging, microwave popcorn (these materials have used PFAS)
pay attention to clothing (I’m not sure what Gore-Tex uses these days for water proofing) and furniture (the company 3M has moved away from PFAS, but they still use chemicals in their Scotchgard products. I can’t comment on how much is known about these other chemicals)
This link has some good tips to reduce our risk to PFAS (it’s USA-based, but it’s a good starting point).
Thanks for reading The Water Droplet and keep watching for more stories about water!