(Edoin Carthy and Abrar Abdelsalam, Dublin City University)
Dublin, November 4 (The Conversation) Since coming into existence in the 1940s, so-called forever chemicals have made themselves part of the fabric of our modern world.
But recently, worrying stories about their harmful effects on our health have been appearing in the headlines.
In fact, PFAS have come under intense scrutiny due to new research showing their persistent nature in the environment and potential health effects.
So what are they and are they an issue in the UK and Ireland? Polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are man-made chemicals, numbering approximately 4,700 types. What makes them different is their formidable carbon-fluorine (C-F) bond, which is renowned among scientists as the most powerful bond in chemistry.
This stability makes them an important ingredient in many products. PFAS, in various forms, have played an important role in creating oil and grease-resistant food packaging, non-stick cookware, water- and stain-resistant textiles, and firefighting foam. Their versatile nature has made them included in our daily lives.
The strength of their carbon-fluorine bonds also makes them resistant to breaking by natural processes. Their longevity, often measured in centuries, has earned them the nickname of ‘legacy compounds’.
Their presence has been detected in worrying concentrations in drinking water, soil, air and even Arctic ice. Recent scientific investigations have revealed a worrying link between PFAS exposure and health harms in both humans and animals.
These effects include increased risk of cancer, liver damage, impaired immune function, developmental disorders, and hormonal disruption.
Their persistence within the human body can lead to detectable adverse health effects. Unlike many substances that are metabolized and eliminated over time, PFAS accumulate in bodily tissues and fluids without breaking down.
This accumulation creates a perpetual, self-sustaining cycle: PFAS contamination permeates rivers, soils, and the food chain. These chemicals find their way into the bodies of humans and animals, where they accumulate over time.
Growing evidence of health risks related to PFAS has caused global concern. Organizations such as the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants have set their sights on imposing strict regulations on the use of PFAS within the European Union.
There’s a lot we still don’t know about the long-term health consequences of PFAS exposure, but the growing global concern is undeniable.
In the UK and Ireland, PFAS contamination infiltrates everyday consumer products and industrial processes. In 2019, UK Environment Agency screening consistently identified PFAS in surface water samples, with PFOA and PFOS found in 96 percent of the sites they surveyed.
The presence of increased PFAS concentrations indicates that no rivers in England meet the ‘good chemical’ status criteria established by the Water Framework Directive. The lead scientific group’s report identified military and civilian airfields, landfills, and wastewater treatment facilities as potential sources of PFAS contamination.
A serious issue in Europe and the UK is the absence of standardized regulations regarding these persistent chemicals. Only two of the most prevalent PFAS variants, PFOA and PFOS, are currently monitored in the UK.
A 2021 report from the Environment Agency highlighted shortcomings in environmental monitoring of PFAS in British waters.
These gaps include a lack of toxicological information about how PFAS are released throughout the life cycle of consumer products and drinking water, for example through recycling and waste disposal practices. This makes it difficult to properly assess the hazards posed by chemicals.
It is important to acknowledge that some PFAS play important roles in drug manufacturing and medical use.
But the lack of research, testing, and public awareness about these compounds has allowed this issue to persist for a very long time, largely due to the beneficial properties of the Forever chemicals.
The complexities associated with PFAS mean that we need a holistic approach involving research to discover new chemical compounds that do not harm the environment and human health.
Although the solution is complex, it can undoubtedly be achieved. We need stronger regulations, more research, and a global effort to eliminate PFAS. If this happens it will ensure a safe and healthy future for both our planet and its inhabitants.
The Conversation Unity Unity