PFAS is a generic term for compounds containing fluorine, carbon, and hydrogen. Due to their stable chemical properties, PFAS break down extremely slowly in the environment and animals. Since their half-life is many years long, they are referred to as “forever chemicals” that are likely to harm people’s health. However, PFAS have become an inseparable part of our lives because of their water- and oil-resistant properties. The article will explain PFAS in detail and where we find them in everyday life, as well as their health risks and the global trends regarding their regulation.
What Are PFAS?
PFAS is not a single nefarious substance but a generic term for over 3,000 types of artificial fluorinated organic compounds. The full name of PFAS is per- or polyfluoroalkyl substances. PFAS are created by electrolyzing an aqueous solution, allowing multiple fluorine atoms to replace the hydrogen atoms bonded to C-C bonds in the original aqueous solution. The chemical properties of fluorine-C-C bonds are very stable. They are hydrophobic, oleophobic, and have very low friction, so are often used on the surfaces of food packaging, clothing, materials for aviation, electrical products, and clocks. In addition, PFAS are also a type of surfactant that lowers the surface tension of water and binds water and grease. They have good thermal conductivity and low reactivity, hence their use in firefighting foam.
When firefighting foam is sprayed, when textile or paper surfaces are degraded via friction, or when factories discharge wastewater in the process of manufacturing chemicals, PFAS will end up in the environment. Due to their stability and non-reactive properties, PFAS do not easily break down in the environment so are often referred to as “forever chemicals”. If absorbed, they will remain in the human body for many years. Currently, the risks of PFAS to the human body are uncertain, as most experiments have been conducted on animals due to humanitarian considerations. PFAS have different negative impacts on different species and there is not yet direct evidence to prove that PFAS are harmful to people.
Know About PFAS, PFOS, and PFOA
The full name of PFAS is per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, a generic term for thousands of fluorinated compounds that serve different purposes. They can be used as a surfactant for chemical manufacturing processes, or as a water- and oil-resistant coating on the surface of paper products or clothes.
The full name of PFOS is perfluorooctane sulfonate and its molecular formula is C8F17SO3. It is the most commonly used substance in the PFAS family. 3M has manufactured PFOS using electrochemical electrolysis since 1949. Thanks to its unique water and oil resistance, PFOS are widely used for protecting product surfaces. For example, carpet and clothing treatment, paper and cardboard packaging, leather product coatings, cable sleeving, water-based films of firefighting foam, and Teflon processing aids.
After the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) received the toxicity status of PFOS worldwide in 1999, it demanded manufacturers in the US to investigate the impact of PFOS. In 2000, 3M announced it would gradually discontinue the production of PFOS-related products, including Scotchgard, its best-selling and most popular water and stain repellent, which was discontinued that year. According to statistics, the half-life of PFOS in the human body is four years. In 2009, they were added to Annex B of the “Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants” (an international convention to prohibit or limit the production of persistent organic pollutants). The EU also subsequently included PFOS in the “Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) Regulation”, and it is almost completely banned from the market except for a few specific uses.
The full name of PFOA is perfluorooctanoic acid, and its molecular formula is C8HF15O2. Together with PFOS, they are known as perfluorinated alkyl acids (PFAAs), and both are composed of eight carbon chains. They are chemically stable and the most commonly used substances in the PFAS family. The functions of PFOA and PFAS are similar, and the most well-known user of these substances is the American company DuPont, which uses PFOA as a processing aid in the manufacture of Teflon. During this production process, PFOA were discharged into the surrounding environment, polluting the local ground water. Thereafter, DuPont paid over US$1 billion to people affected by the substances and to the government, as compensation and to improve water quality. DuPont officially adopted GenX in place of PFOA to produce Teflon in 2015. In 2019, PFOA was also included in the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants as a type of POPs.
The Health Risks of PFAS: How Do PFAS Affect Our Health?
The half-life of PFAS in the human body is generally very long; the half-life of the most common PFAS; PFOA, PFOS, and PFHxS is 3.8 years, 5.4 years, and 8.5 years, respectively. The degree of harm caused by PFAS to each animal is different, and most of the research on PFAS only confirms their carcinogenic risk to animals, while human trials are still in the tracking phase. In the film “Dark Waters”, when lawsuits were filed against DuPont for its emissions-related incidents, the legal team needed to prove that PFOA were harmful to the human body, thus the C8 Health Project (named after the 8 carbons in the PFOA molecule) was launched to track the victims on a long-term basis. Ironically, the 69,000 people who consumed the contaminated water are among the few groups of people in the world who have received long-term PFAS exposure, making the study one of the most comprehensive human studies of PFAS to date, proving that PFOA can affect fetal growth and development, reduce female fertility, increase cholesterol levels, decrease the body’s response to vaccines, and increase the risk of cancer. However, since more research data is needed to support these findings, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) only classifies PFOA as “possibly carcinogenic to humans” in group 2B.
Molecules containing more than four carbons are known as long-chain PFAS. These include PFOA and PFOS, etc., which have a longer half-life and are generally regarded as more harmful to people’s health. Since long-chain PFAS are regulated by the law, manufacturers have switched to short-chain PFAS. For instance, GenX, which DuPont uses as a substitute for PFOA, is a type of short-chain PFAS. Whether short-chain PFAS are less harmful to humans remains to be confirmed.
PFAS Are All Around Us! Where Can We Find PFAS?
Since most PFAS cannot be broken down and remain in the environment for a long time, they are distributed all over the world through the water cycle. What’s more, many products in life contain PFAS, so even if PFOS, PFOA, and other substances that are proven to be harmful to animals by studies are banned, manufacturers will find alternative substances in the PFAS family as substitutes. Let us take a look at where PFAS are found in our lives:
PFAS in Drinking Water
PFAS leaked by factories during the manufacturing process or via discarded products PFAS-containing will stay in the environment and reach all corners of the world, including our drinking water, through the water cycle.
PFAS in Food
PFAS in water enter animals and plants through ingestion. Low doses of PFAS have been detected in fish, shellfish, vegetables, dairy products, and various meat products. Furthermore, food packaging containing PFAS such as wrapping paper, popcorn bags, and takeout containers may release PFAS into food.
PFAS in Clothing Textiles
Waterproof clothes such as raincoats, jackets, and yoga pants may also contain PFAS, but they also offer us more stain-resistant, breathable, and waterproof clothing choices. Currently, no regulations are in place to require manufacturers to disclose whether their products contain PFAS.
PFAS in Paper Straws
In order to achieve water resistance, PFAS are added to some paper straws. Also, since large amounts of water are needed for paper production, if water quality management is not properly implemented, PFAS may be detected even in straws that are supposedly PFAS-free.
PFAS in Drinking Water
According to the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) research reports in 2023, on average, at least one type of PFAS is detected in 45% of drinking water in the country. In urban areas and areas with a known history of PFAS contamination, the figure can be as high as more than 70%! PFAS have infiltrated the domestic water supply. To avoid drinking water containing PFAS, filter water using activated carbon or RO.
PFAS in Food
PFAS enter food through environmental contamination or food packaging contamination. Planting crops and raising livestock or fish with PFAS-contaminated soil, water, or feed will allow PFAS to enter food products. For example, the FDA conducted a test in 2022 to determine if PFAS are present in various seafood such as clams, cod, crabs, salmon, and shrimps. The test found PFAS in numerous types of seafood, and some of them may potentially pose threats to people’s health. Additionally, food packaging containing PFAS also bears the risk of food contamination, thus we need to select food packaging certified to be PFAS-free or simply choose stainless steel food containers, to avoid ingesting PFAS through food.
PFAS in Clothing Textiles
PFAS used in textiles account for a major portion of annual global PFAS consumption. Manufacturers use PFAS to produce functional stain- and water-resistant fabrics for products such as firefighter suits, raincoats, and jackets. Also, PFAS are used to treat leather and home textiles. Although PFAS do not easily enter the human body through the skin, the doses accumulated from wearing clothes can, over time, reach a significant level. In addition, PFAS may enter our drinking water or food through fragments caused by wear and tear, and ultimately ingested by us, posing a threat to our health.
PFAS in Paper Straws
According to the latest research from Belgium in 2023, over 90% of paper straws – regarded as an eco-friendly replacement for plastic straws – contain PFAS. The research team speculates that it may be because some paper straws utilize PFAS as a water-resistant material to prevent them from softening when immersed in beverages. Another possibility is that the straws’ raw materials or production processes are contaminated by omnipresent PFAS. Since trees, the raw material of paper, are not food, they are seldom tested for food safety. Furthermore, a large amount of water is used in the production process, non-potable water that is not filtered through activated carbon or RO. The report conducted tests on 39 straw brands. Apart from paper straws, those made of bamboo, plastic, and glass also contain a certain concentration of PFAS.
Do Compostable Sugarcane Straws Contain PFAS?
Compared to paper straws, renouvo’s biodegradable sugarcane straws have been tested by international testing company SGS to be free of PFAS, thus we can enjoy beverages without being concerned about ingesting PFAS. renouvo’s biodegradable sugarcane straws are made of bagasse, an agricultural waste. Besides minimizing waste and being renewable, it is also a food-grade material. Little water is used in the production process, and the proprietary technology maintains the straws’ water resistance without adding PFAS or plastic, to ensure safety, health, and good user experience.
What Are the PFAS Regulations in the US & EU?
United States Toxic Substances Control Act, TSCA, and National Primary Drinking Water Regulations
Since 2000, major manufacturers in the US using PFAS have gradually reduced the use of PFOA and PFOS, and the EPA also started phasing out the use of specific types of PFAS in 2006. Previously, imports of PFAS had to be declared, and now EPA’s approval must also be obtained. Except for extremely rare circumstances, products containing long-chain PFAS such as PFOA and PFOS are no longer produced in or imported into the US.
In addition, the Bipartisan Infrastructure Deal promulgated in 2023 will allocate US$2 billion to address contaminants in drinking water across the US, including PFAS. The EPA is also formulating regulations for six types of PFAS present in drinking water (PFOA, PFOS, PFNA, GenX, PFHxS, and PFBS), to detect and reduce their concentration below an acceptable value. The final details of these regulations are slated for confirmation before the end of 2023.
EU POPs Regulation and REACH Substances of Very High Concern (SVHCs)
When the EU included PFOS in the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants in 2009, it was also included in the POPs regulations. PFOA and PFHxS were included in POPs in 2020 and August 2023, respectively, following the international consensus at the time. Furthermore, the European REACH regulations require manufacturers to comply with registration, reporting, supply chain communication, and limited use regulations when using specific chemical substances, especially the candidate list of substances of very high concern (SVHC). At present, a wide range of PFAS falls under the jurisdiction of REACH, among which PFOS, PFOA, and PFHxS are all SVHCs.
The EU is also formulating new regulations to limit over 10,000 types of PFAS by 2025. PFAS are only permitted for use in certain fields for a limited period, while they are gradually replaced by non-PFAS chemicals.
PFAS have become an indispensable part of our lives in terms of clothing, food packaging, and daily necessities because of their stable properties and stain- and water-resistant qualities. Unfortunately, while pursuing convenience and functionality, PFAS have brought about negative impacts on both our health and the environment. Minimizing the use of PFAS has become a global consensus, and searching for PFAS replacement materials has become a top priority among all chemical manufacturers.