Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, better known as PFASs, are a group of man-made chemicals that include PFOA (perflourooctanoic acid), PFOS (perflourous sulfonic acid) with many other variations. These were made for various industries around the world including in the United States since the 1940s. The most extensively produced types have been studied more than others but both these chemicals persist to environmental conditions and can accumulate over time – meaning they break down very slowly or not at all within living organisms making them an unsustainable resource which could also lead to adverse human health effects like cancers observed by epidemiologists from different parts of America after decades ago when firefighting foam containing this type was used by the military to extinguish fires.
The chemicals have been used or are used in a variety of products including food wrappers, non-stick cookware, carpeting, cleaning, and firefighting foams. They were also found very dangerous for water treatment plants and other environmental systems as they can render them useless due to their unknown half-lives and high solubility. The compounds do not easily break down due to their chemical structure. They are able to form more than 10 million different toxic combinations meaning that there’s more potential for negative health effects which could lead to death or cause slow deterioration of human health over a period of time.
The problem with this particular type of chemicals was revealed a decade ago when chemicals were found in blood samples of around 100,000 people across the U.S., 600 locations in New Jersey alone with concentrations as high as 10 times higher than the national average. The following year several manufacturers agreed to phase out perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS) by 2015 under the terms of a voluntary agreement between them and the US Environmental Protection Agency. However, scientists have found that these chemicals are still present at detectable levels in drinking water across the U.S.. This is because it takes long years for this type of chemicals to decompose from the environment.
Avoiding PFASs is difficult as they are still present in a variety of products including food wrappers, non-stick cookware, carpeting, cleaning, and firefighting foams. Scrap or used up products of this kind should be properly disposed of to avoid contaminating water systems. However, when it comes to new products the best way to solve the problem is to avoid the production of harmful chemicals altogether.
However, the question is how safe are PFASs (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances) once they have been released into the environment? And who is responsible for cleaning them up once they’ve contaminated our water supply?
How safe are PFASs once they have been released into the environment?
Once released into the environment, PFASs are easily spread through the air, water, and soil. The compounds do not break down too easily upon contact with soil or water which is why they are difficult to deal with at an industrial level as they could contaminate surrounding areas. The health effects of PFASs have been observed in animals including humans since the 1980s when another group of chemicals called PFCAs was studied.
The first signs of PFASs health effects observed in animals included tumors, liver, pancreas, and testes damage while further studies led to the discovery that the chemicals can also affect the immune system and disrupt hormone functions leading to more serious consequences like cancer or developmental defects in children.
In humans, similar effects have been proven and observed. Exposure to PFASs has led to damage to the liver, kidneys in some cases also linked with cancer or developmental defects in children among other health effects like low birth weight, delayed puberty, thyroid problems, and changes in cholesterol levels.
Moreover, as the most recent studies have shown these chemicals are not only transported through air, water, and soil but also by the food chain. This means that animals that eat contaminated plants or prey on other animals and fish might take these chemicals also.
The study of the latest discovered health effects of PFASs has been further complicated due to the fact that there are over a hundred variations of this kind of chemical in the environment. Some studies have found even 450 variations of PFASs in human blood samples while the majority of them remain unidentified.
Who is responsible for cleaning up these chemicals once they’ve contaminated our water supply?
Cleaning up PFASs is not an easy task but there are possible solutions that could be used to tackle the problem. One of those is filtering the drinking water from PFASs by using activated carbon or ion-exchange resins. This method, however, costs money and energy although some communities have already begun to use it. Another way would be water purification by using additional chemicals which could help eliminate PFASs from drinking water such as iron oxide. However, the effectiveness of this treatment is also questionable as there has been a recent study that found that it is not 100% efficient.
However, there is one more solution that might solve the PFASs problem for good – getting rid of them from their original sources at the manufacturing level. This goal can only be achieved by changing chemical formulations or replacing chemicals completely with others that do not pose a risk to the environment and human health.
Where should the PFASs tackle begin?
The answer to that question is – at the production level. Since chemicals do not break down completely even after being released into the environment their concentrations get higher and higher over time. This means that we need to take specific steps in order to reduce their presence in our water supply. The best solution in this regard would be to stop using the chemicals completely. However, in many cases that is not an option due to the fact that PFASs are also used for manufacturing non-stick pans for instance which cannot be substituted for something else at all. This means that some of the manufacturers have had to take other measures such as:
- Reforming chemical formulas so that they break down more easily
- Replacing chemicals with others that have similar functions but less or no risk to the environment and human health.
Is there any progress being made towards the PFASs clean-up?
Yes, some communities and even individual states have begun to tackle the PFASs problems. In 2016 a study was published which found levels of PFASs in drinking water in New Jersey who long ago installed a carbon filter to remove these chemicals. The tests demonstrated that the filter successfully reduced PFAs concentration by up to 90 percent or more. Additionally, the communities with carbon filters were found to have the highest concentrations of PFASs. This means that this method is a viable solution for many towns and cities which are suffering from high levels of PFASs in their drinking water supply.
However, there is a lot more work to be done as long as these chemicals are still used in manufacturing. However, it is a fact that a better concentration of PFASs in water poses a bigger health risk than their lower concentrations so maybe we should try not to make the problem even worse by using these chemicals wherever possible and replacing them with those which are safer for people and environment.
PFAS Chemicals should not be used for manufacturing any longer since they pose a potential risk to both human health and the environment. They should be replaced with safer chemicals that do not damage our water supplies. In order to achieve this goal the companies which are using PFASs as their raw materials need to change chemical formulas or find other solutions such as those described above in order to reduce their impact on the environment and human health.
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