By Rehan Iqbal
The term forever chemicals refers to chemical compounds that take a very long time to break down. Basically, they seem to last forever. We also know these chemicals as PFAS, which stands for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances. These chemicals are used in many industries for oil and water resistance.
Where are PFAS Most Commonly Found
PFAS are in products that we use every day. Chances are that your sofa uses PFAS to make it water and stain resistant. Water resistant shoes and clothing, lipstick, basically anything that is marketed as waterproof or water resistant probably contains PFAS.
The same can be said for oil resistant products, like the wrappers used for fast foods. It is also used in non-stick cookware and the foam used to extinguish oil-based fires.
Since we all depend on products containing PFAS, it would be hard to imagine a world without these chemicals. They are manufactured by companies like DuPont, Chemours, and 3M, who have been criticized for exposing us to the dangers of PFAS.
However, products that use PFAS are not always an actual danger. Using non-stick cookware, and water or oil resistant products is reasonably safe, but not 100% guaranteed. Quite a lot of concern has been raised about PFAS in fast food packaging as this comes into direct contact wit the food we eat.
PFAS is most dangerous when it enters the water supply through industrial waste and landfill sites. These chemicals permeate the ground and find their way into ground water. They are also washed into rivers and lakes from runoff water.
The problem with forever chemicals is their cumulative effect. PFAS was invented in the 1930s and have been used ever since. In the 1960s, the number of products utilizing these chemicals grew extensively.
Currently, there over 9,000 types of PFAS that have been found in the environment and they remain there for over 1,000 years. This means that every PFAS product that has been manufactured is still a danger and will remain that way for many generations to come.
What are Forever Chemicals?
The scientists will tell you that PFAS differ from organic compounds by bonding carbon with fluorine. Organic molecules consist of chains made up of hydrogen and carbon. By replacing the hydrogen with fluorine a much stronger bond is created.
This makes PFAS almost indestructible as there is no natural process of separating fluorine from carbon. Essentially, PFAS chemicals are different combinations of fluorine, hydrogen, and oxygen.
While all this may be overly academic, forming a picture in our minds of how these chemicals work will help us understand how to get rid of PFAS. Given the threat to our drinking water, scientists have been hard at work to find a way to break down PFAS and have made some breakthroughs. I’ll be discussing this in more detail further down the page.
What we need to understand for now is that the individual elements (fluorine, hydrogen, and oxygen) are not toxic in their own right. They are found in many naturally occurring substances and we actually need them in our bodies. It is only when these three elements are artificially bonded that they become a danger to humans and animals.
What Do Forever Chemicals Do to the Body?
While PFAS are found in the air, ground, and water, we are most at risk from drinking contaminated water. Even very small amounts of forever chemicals can be harmful and conventional methods of water treatment, used for municipal supplies, don’t get rid of PFAS.
Research into the health effects of forever chemicals is limited. However, PFAS in drinking water has been associated with several health problems. These include:
While many of these issues have not been medically proven, statistics indicate that people living close to PFAS contaminated sites, or drink PFAS contaminated water, have experienced these health problems.
It is estimated that over 98% of people have PFAS in their blood. Some types of PFAS are more dangerous than others. Since there are thousands of PFAS variants, we are not all necessarily at risk of developing health disorders from drinking water, but we should be concerned and be aware of the possible dangers.
There is a strong possibility that your tap water contains forever chemicals since it is not removed by most water treatment methods. To protect your family from the harmful effects of PFAS, you can use a number of filtration methods.
Activated Carbon Filters
Activated carbon is common in most types of household water filters. It is a porous substance that absorbs chemicals and organic compounds. Apart from improving the taste and odor of your water, activated carbon filters also remove many harmful chemicals including PFAS.
Ion Exchange Filters
Another effective method of removing PFAS from drinking water is to use an ion exchange filter. These filters use ionized resin beads that are either positively or negatively charged. Positively charged anion exchange resins attract negatively charged PFAS, removing them from the water, thereby making it safe to drink.
A high pressure membrane like reverse osmosis (RO) is very effective at removing most contaminants from water. The membrane traps salts and particles as small as 1-micron. This makes an RO filtration system capable of removing up to 90% of PFAS from water.
Can We Get Rid of Forever Chemicals Permanently?
Until quite recently, forever chemicals were considered to be virtually indestructible, making environmental cleanup projects prohibitively expensive. Scientists at the University of California, Los Angles and Northwestern university rose to the challenge of finding a permanent solution to the PFAS problem.
They noticed that forever chemicals begin to slowly degrade when exposed to dimethyl sulfoxide (DMSO), a common solvent. By experimenting with different doses of DMSO through a range of temperatures, they were able to rapidly break down the forever chemicals.
The process splits the fluorine from the compound, forming fluoride, thereby making it safe. This method has been successful on 10 types of PFAS, containing oxygen-rich carboxylic acid heads. It is hoped that further research will make it possible to use this treatment on other types of forever chemicals.
Is there PFAS in Toothpaste?
Because toothpaste contains fluoride, which is a form of fluorine (the main element in PFAS), there has been speculation that toothpaste could contain PFAS. The jury is still out on this one. While most of the available information indicates that toothpaste does not contain forever chemicals, it has been suggested that there may be PFAS in some brands of toothpaste. Though there is no conclusive evidence that this true.
Does Bottled Water Have PFAS?
Researchers at John Hopkins University tested 100 brands of bottled water and found that 39 of them contained PFAS. While the brands that were tested have not been made public, some types of bottled water were more susceptible to PFAS contamination.
Spring water from natural wells and springs is more likely to contain PFAS than purified water that is usually filtered using reverse osmosis.
Do Brita Filters Remove PFAS?
Brita filters use activated carbon primarily to remove lead, mercury, and chlorine, which improves the taste and odor of the water. It is known that activated carbon is also good for removing PFAS. However, water pitcher filters don’t remove enough forever chemicals to ensure that is safe to drink.
What Foods Contain PFAS?
Because PFAS accumulates in water and soil, the FDA has done extensive testing on fish, meat, poultry, and vegetables, as well as various types of bottled water. Fish and shellfish is presumed to be the most significant dietary source of PFAS because they have the most contact with water.
Small amounts of PFAS have been found in vegetables, eggs, dairy products, honey, and various meat products. Several types of bottled water also contain PFAS.
Can Anything Break Down PFAS?
In 2019, a new method of breaking down some types of PFAS using sulfoxide (DMSO) and lye or sodium hydroxide. Though this method only works on about 10 of the over 9,000 PFAS variants.
How Do You Know if Your Drinking Water Has PFAS?
The EPA recommends that people who are concerned about the possibility of PFAS in their drinking water should contact their water utility and inquire whether they have been monitoring PFAS data. They may also be able to offer recommendations to help you deal with possible contamination.
People who use a well to supply drinking water should learn more on how to protect their wells from all possible contaminants.
While PFAS can be found almost anywhere, people who get their water from sources close to industrial areas, airports, and military bases (where extensive fire fighting training is conducted) will be most at risk.
How Can You Avoid PFAS?
Since PFAS is in some foods and the general environment, it is impossible to completely avoid them. If you want to reduce your exposure to PFAS it is recommended that avoid takeout packaging by eating at home more often.
Since your greatest risk of PFAS contamination is by drinking water, you should filter your water at home, using multi-stage RO filtration system designed to remove PFAS. If you’re going to drink bottled water, check that it has been purified using RO filtration.