Forever chemicals as a ticking time bomb for future generations?

PFAS, thousands of artificial fluorinated chemicals. And nature doesn't know how to deal with them. These substances never decompose; they remain permanently in the environment. They accumulate in the bodies of humans and animals. That's how they get into our food, meat, milk, and eggs. We drink PFAS with our water, and they rain down on us in rainwater. They are produced massively because of their extraordinary properties. It is no exaggeration to say that all of us, including new-born, have these substances in our bodies. PFAS, known as forever chemicals, have many uses and are a part of every household. They are used in waterproof clothing, footwear, furniture coverings, disposable packaging, waterproofing sprays, cosmetics, and many other products. However, they are very dangerous; they are linked to lowering the immunity of toddlers and can cause cancer, infertility, hormonal problems, diabetes, etc. Thanks to Prof. Martin Scheringer (ETH Zurich/RECETOX), who was involved as a scientific expert, we are delighted to be part of the "The Forever Pollution Project” which aims to map the extent of PFAS contamination in Europe and make the information available to the public. Alarmingly, only three substances from this large group are banned. For the others, no legislation regulates their production and use. The European Union is working on one, but the proposal still needs to be finalized.

14 Apr 2023 Jitka Vaňáčková

prof. Martin Scheringer, Dr. sc. nat.

Professor, when did people realize that PFAS are much more dangerous than they were thought to be?

The people at the companies that produced these chemicals must have known. I first learned about it in a paper published in 2001 by J. P. Giesy and K. Kannan. It was a revolutionary publication. J. P. Giesy, by the way, has been working with RECETOX for a long time and he is a member of the International Scientific Advisory Board at RECETOX.

Why are PFAS produced in such huge quantities? Is it because of their unique properties?

Yes, definitely, plus they started to be used in the 1950s, a period full of optimism and development after the Second World War. There was exponential growth in all sectors at that time. However, from the beginning, some people must have known that this was a chemical substance that would be difficult to break down and could cause problems. Take DDT, for example; this was also seen as a 'miracle' in agriculture, but even in the 1950s, people could see the side effects on birds, fish, and bees, and it was clear that this substance would cause a great deal of trouble. The problem is that the mindset at that time was that the solution to pollution was dilution.

Many companies, especially outdoor clothing manufacturers, have stopped using PFAS (e.g., in Gore-Tex membranes) on their initiative and replaced it with other chemicals to protect consumers and the environment. Can the chemicals that replace PFAS be relied upon to be safe?

PFAS is so problematic that most alternatives will be safer or, at least, preferable. At least in terms of persistence, because these alternatives will be degradable more easily than PFAS. PFAS will never degrade in the environment, so anything that has similar properties but can also degrade is a better alternative. Of course, with the need to test their toxicity. Impregnation, for example, can be solved with waxes. Waxes have been used since ancient China when the Chinese used waxed paper as protection against rain. With simple applications or ways, things can be done similarly, with a similar effect or benefit to people. You can buy jackets from which you can smell the wax. Let’s look at the baking paper as another example. I learned from paper manufacturers in Sweden that wood processing could differ significantly. It results in a naturally grease-resistant paper suitable for baking. Then we do not need additives, such as PFAS, in this case, added to baking papers.

That sounds very interesting, but I suppose it would entail significantly increased costs and, consequently, the selling price of the products.

Perhaps a bit, but it wouldn't make much difference. You know, PFAS are costly. They're expensive to produce, so it wouldn't make a noticeable difference to the consumer. But even if the price difference were more substantial, we should be willing to pay for products that do not contain PFAS.

Recently I read an article about the US military trying to degrade PFAS with super-heated water. Could this approach be applied generally? Are there some possibilities for how to degrade PFAS?

PFAS that cannot be "collected" from the environment cannot be removed either. This is so in most cases. We cannot remove it from rainwater, groundwater, watercourses, and soil. The instances where we can handle PFAS are always under controlled conditions. In the laboratory, we have removed it using high temperatures, aggressive chemicals, or even microbes that can disrupt the stability of the carbon-fluorine bond by the biochemical reaction. Therefore, our concern is with PFAS which, let’s say, have 'escaped,' and we have no way to collect, treat and remove them.

So, what is the solution for PFAS in underground water supplies?

We can monitor this PFAS, create maps, as has been done in "The Forever Pollution Project," and try to contain and capture the PFAS in these hotspots. But we can never remove everything, and it is a costly process.

Professor, under what conditions can PFAS get "out" of, for example, a Teflon pan or a waterproof coat? Everyone probably has these items at home; what is the risk?

These are entirely different cases. The Teflon in the pan is relatively safe; it is a polymer, so the concern only arises if people overheat it. However, it is always necessary to look at the life cycle of the manufactured item, that is, its production, use, and disposal. The use phase is the least worrisome for Teflon; the production and disposal phase is problematic. The scandalous case of DuPont in the USA is well known, where large amounts of one particular PFAS were released into the environment from a Teflon production plant. The situation is quite different in the case of PFAS used in coatings, clothing, and footwear. Our skin is constantly in contact with these products, and during friction, PFAS is released and evaporates, thus entering circulation. Landfills and waste are also significant sources of PFAS entering the environment. Waterproof clothing, carpets, furniture, building materials, etc., containing PFAS go to landfills and become an important pollution source.

EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) has stated that PFAS suppresses the immune response in toddlers. How serious is it from your point of view? A growing number of women in the Czech Republic choose to breastfeed their babies for a long time because of the health benefits. At the same time, parents want their children to spend much time outdoors, so they place them in forest nurseries. The children are exposed to various weather and often wear waterproof clothing and shoes because of bad weather. Parents make these decisions in the best interests of the child. So how is it?

This is a tricky question that is very difficult to answer. I am not an expert on human health and human toxicology. PFAS enters developing fetuses from the mother's body. Infants continue to ingest it in the form of breast milk because PFAS is eliminated from the mother's body through breastfeeding. The amount of PFAS in the body of children is higher due to their significantly lower weight compared to an adult. Pollutants such as pesticides, or PFAS, may be present in breast milk at different levels. Even so, breastfeeding is suitable for children for several reasons. It depends on the actual levels of these substances in the mother's body. Of course, the distribution of pollution varies in different areas. As for clothing and footwear, it's also a question of brand reputation. The big brands have followed the discussion about the PFAS, and often aim to eliminate them from their products. So, it depends on which clothes and shoes we buy.

Is there a certificate indicating products that do not contain PFAS?

Yes, there are, but these labels are not controlled and certified, such as in the case of organic food. If anyone has much power in this fight against PFAS, it is the big brands. Big brands can pressure suppliers to only buy their goods with a guarantee that they are PFAS-free. It's a supply chain issue. It depends on the customer's needs, so the manufacturer responds to that and pressures the supplier.

The so-called Stockholm Convention bans three PFAS chemicals. The others still need to be regulated, although a revolutionary proposal is under discussion to ban fluorinated substances in consumer products by 2025. A complete ban could come into force by 2030. For what reason is there no legislation to regulate these substances so far?

That is a tricky but fair question. That is precisely the question we should ask and answer to the public. The PFAS case poses a massive challenge to a regulatory system that needs to prepare for such situations. Let us be aware that acute toxicity to fish or other aquatic organisms, for example, is being investigated, but the reduced immune response in children is not tested for. That will never be tested because such a test would be highly demanding and costly. So, as far as PFAS is concerned, we are always learning more and more information. The testing system works up to a certain point but is imperfect because it does not ask the right questions. Moreover, when it is a substance already on the market, it is difficult to ban it.

3M and DuPont have been the subject of massive scandals and subsequent lawsuits. These companies have been producing forever chemicals, even though they have had secret studies available to them. They performed tests to monitor contamination and other parameters. They probably could suspect how dangerous the substances were. But they chose to remain silent. How do you see it? Do you see a parallel there?

Yes, the story of the oil and gas company Exxon is also very similar. In the 1980s, they could predict very accurately that their products would cause global warming. They anticipated what would happen regarding climate change and temperature rise with impressive accuracy. And the companies making PFAS were in a similar situation: they knew a lot about the hazards of PFAS, but did not share it

Do you think it can be said that PFAS represent a ticking time bomb for future generations?

Yes, but it depends on the level of PFAS exposure. Moreover, it will be complicated to prove if a health problem is caused by chronic exposure to PFAS, for example, in childhood. But there will be lasting PFAS legacy in many parts of the world.

Each of us is surrounded by a "cocktail" of chemicals at subthreshold levels. These chemicals can come from the air, cosmetics, or food. Is it reasonable to assume that some mixtures containing, for example, PFAS at "safe levels" could affect disease development?

Mixtures are much debated. Regulation always addresses individual chemicals but does not address mixtures. We can say without exaggeration that current chemical regulation is under-protective.

Professor, what should we learn from an exciting conversation with you?

We must inform people that the goal of our work is not to cause consternation or to scare people. We live in a world we have partly created; we must learn to accept that we cannot escape the consequences and burdens of our actions. We all have PFAS in our bodies; how serious it is, we don't know. We are still determining how serious it will be for generations to come. We must accept it instead of fearing the chemistry around and within us. Chemistry can be beneficial, sometimes harmful, but we need it. Let’s motivate our children to study environmental chemistry. Let’s realize you can move things if you are active. If the public pressures politicians, there won't be so much trouble regulating the industry. The solution is not to be afraid but to focus on what you can do to prevent such situations from happening again. Let's not be paralyzed! Yes, our children have PFAS in their bodies, so let's not raise their levels by giving them fast food that is not only unhealthy but is served in packaging that often contains PFAS.

Professor, thank you for the excellent talk, and I wish you success in your research.

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