What are PFAS?

12/8/23 update: Curious about the new PFAS reporting requirements? Check out our blog on new regulations for reporting PFAS under TSCA here.

PFAS chemicals are also known as polyfluoroalkyl substances. This includes both perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS). The FDA has been working to keep PFAS, including PFOA and PFOS, out of the water.

PFAS have been used since the 1940’s to create stain-resistant and water-resistant materials. They are used in fire-fighting foams, paints, cleaning products, and waxes. They can also be found in food wrappers, non-stick cookware, carpets, rugs, and furniture. Because PFAS have been so ubiquitous, there are larger concerns about its role in the environment. PFAS have only fairly recently been understood in terms of the widespread damage they can cause both people and the environment.

PFAS water contamination can cause a myriad of potential health issues: liver damage, decreased fertility, obesity, hormonal suppression, thyroid disease, and even cancer (see the PFAS Wikipedia entry which disambiguates between different chemicals). The polyfluoroalkyl substances Wiki discusses that there are both human health concerns and potential environmental concerns, both of which scientists are attempting to address by preventing PFAS from being introduced into the water.

On unborn children, PFAS can cause lower birth weights, a reduced response to vaccines, early puberty, or an increased rate of miscarriage. There are a number of issues that children and adults could experience depending on the amount of PFAS they are exposed to.

PFAS are particularly dangerous because they are extremely persistent; in other words, once introduced into an environment, they are difficult to remove. They have been called “forever chemicals” for this reason. Other chemicals may be as toxic but they break down faster or are easier to remove from the environment, making them less of a long-term threat. PFAS can also lead to occupational exposure for those who work heavily with them: manufacturing workers, firefighters, and ski wax technicians.

Once PFAS have been introduced into the environment, there are a few major methods of remediation. They may be removed through water treatment technologies such as reverse osmosis or nano-filtration. There are also a number of experimental ways that are starting to be explored.

Because of the persistence of this chemical, the FDA does quite a lot to protect the environment from it, and to prevent it from entering into the ground water. In recent years, the public has become more aware of the damage that PFAS can cause, and has become more conscientious about it. Still, because many PFAS chemicals are introduced through a manufacturing process, rather than in consumer goods, people may have limited control over their own usage of products with PFAS.

PFAS Contamination

We know that PFAS health effects can be quite severe. Individuals in Michigan and those around and in military bases have experienced some significant contamination, which resulted in clear and widespread symptoms. But everyone has a little PFAS in them. Nearly 99 percent of Americans, in fact, will test positive for PFAS, despite this chemical having been created in the 1940s by 3M. This is because of its status as a “forever chemical,” something that remains within the environment and within people.

What is PFAS contamination? It occurs when a PFAS chemical like a fluorosurfactant enters into your body, usually through water. Michigan contaminated sites and PFAS contamination military bases both experienced these PFAS health effects.

The PFAS list of contamination symptoms include:

  • Cancer. PFOA, in particular, is known to cause cancer. Thus, if people who have been exposed to PFOA experience a cancer diagnosis, they should be aware that it may be due to PFOA.
  • Low infant birth weights. Low infant birth weights can cause failure to thrive for infants and make it more difficult for infants to achieve a healthy weight and general health in the future.
  • Negative impact on the immune system. When the immune system is adversely impacted, individuals can become sicker over time, and may be more vulnerable to other types of illness.
  • Thyroid hormone disruption. PFOS can cause a disruption of the human thyroid, which can have a wide variety of symptoms ranging from mood swings to weight gain.

So, what does PFAS do to your body? It can do quite a lot, depending on how much you’ve been exposed. And because PFAS contamination can occur due to a fairly wide variety of chemicals, manufacturing processes, and products, it becomes even more important for companies to control how much PFAS they are using, where, and when. Once PFAS can be appropriately controlled, people will be less likely to be exposed.

The State of Michigan has discovered some significant PFAS contamination throughout the entire state. Both fish and water in Michigan have been impacted. It has taken action to reduce the times when the firefighters will use PFAS foam. Furthermore, hundreds of military bases have been seen to have PFAS contamination, which also means that those who are on the military bases are likely to see the result of PFAS exposure.

The FDA is taking action to try to regulate and manage PFAS, but as of yet there isn’t strong regulations in place and it may take years for them to be developed.

In 2019, more than 500 farms in Michigan had to be quarantined due to PFAS, which included 30,000 heads of cattle. But those in Michigan have been aware of PFAS presence previously, as it had cropped up in well water. Because PFAS has been around since the 1940s, it has likely been causing some issues since then, but after entering into widespread use and building up in the environment, the symptoms are now more severe. Many have died of issues such as liver cancer that could be PFAS-related, but it remains difficult and unclear to diagnose, simply because so many people have been exposed to PFAS, and because many may have succumbed to PFAS-related issues before the knowledge about the danger was known.

Apart from health-related PFAS contamination concerns, there are, of course, also environmental issues. Environmental issues can also have devastating impact to people around PFAS contaminated sites, even beyond the direct PFAS health effects. PFAS is being found in everything from fish to polar bears, and can be causing similar issues in wildlife. To mitigate this, PFAS has to be actively removed from water and the environment.

PFAS in Bottled Water

Despite PFAS being clearly dangerous, there are PFAS in food, PFAS in food packaging, and PFAS in food wrappers. PFAS stands for polyfluoroalkyl substances, of which two of the most common are PFOS and PFOA. PFAS was introduced in the 40s and became immediately widespread, and because it is such a useful chemical, it’s still used very frequently. PFAS resists water, so it has been used to create water-resistant and stain-resistant products.

The major concern about PFAS is that they are “forever chemicals,” which means once they are introduced into a system, they remain there for some time. 99 percent of Americans have PFAS in their body, and this number can continue to grow. There are PFAS in drinking water Massachusetts and Michigan, PFAS around many military bases, and a PFAS water contamination map will show that the problem is significant in many major areas in America. PFAS can cause health issues in both people and animals, and has become a major environmental concern. The PFAS meaning in construction relates to a chemical that is extremely useful, such as for things like foam that can fight fire.

But casually, people may be more concerned about PFAS in things like bottled water. A PFAS water test shows that it’s in a lot of ground water, and it may not always be completely removed. When tested, concerning levels of PFAS were found in bottled water brands such as Spring Hill. The issue is that legal limits are still being debated, so people may find that PFAS will show up in their bottled water or in their food. And because PFAS do build up over time, these PFAS limits may not be enough to truly protect individuals.

PFAS end up in bottled water, drinking water, food packaging, wrappers, and food, because there are amounts that are accepted by the regulatory bodies. Particularly, PFAS end up in food wrappers that need to resist oils and water. People are individually exposed to very small amounts of this chemical which meet industry standards, but again, because these are “forever chemicals” they do build up in other areas of the environment.

With new construction, contamination maps can be used to identify areas of dangerous contamination. Michigan has the most PFAS contaminated sites in the United States. For some, it may not be an immediate concern. For others, it can be extremely alarming because of the fact that PFAS build up over time.

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