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Outside the Safe Operating Space of a New Planetary Boundary for Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS)

Abstract

It is hypothesized that environmental contamination by per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) defines a separate planetary boundary and that this boundary has been exceeded. This hypothesis is tested by comparing the levels of four selected perfluoroalkyl acids (PFAAs) (i.e., perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS), perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), perfluorohexanesulfonic acid (PFHxS), and perfluorononanoic acid (PFNA)) in various global environmental media (i.e., rainwater, soils, and surface waters) with recently proposed guideline levels. On the basis of the four PFAAs considered, it is concluded that (1) levels of PFOA and PFOS in rainwater often greatly exceed US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Lifetime Drinking Water Health Advisory levels and the sum of the aforementioned four PFAAs (Σ4 PFAS) in rainwater is often above Danish drinking water limit values also based on Σ4 PFAS; (2) levels of PFOS in rainwater are often above Environmental Quality Standard for Inland European Union Surface Water; and (3) atmospheric deposition also leads to global soils being ubiquitously contaminated and to be often above proposed Dutch guideline values. It is, therefore, concluded that the global spread of these four PFAAs in the atmosphere has led to the planetary boundary for chemical pollution being exceeded. Levels of PFAAs in atmospheric deposition are especially poorly reversible because of the high persistence of PFAAs and their ability to continuously cycle in the hydrosphere, including on sea spray aerosols emitted from the oceans. Because of the poor reversibility of environmental exposure to PFAS and their associated effects, it is vitally important that PFAS uses and emissions are rapidly restricted.

Synopsis

A planetary boundary has been exceeded due to PFAS levels in environmental media being ubiquitously above guideline levels.

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The latest story of toxic deceit and delay: PFAS

The latest story of toxic deceit and delay: PFAS

Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances or PFAS—a group of persistent toxic chemicals often referred to as “forever chemicals”—are everywhere. Don’t take my word for it. Here is a list posted on the site of the U.S. Environmental Protection (EPA) agency:

  • Food packaged in PFAS-containing materials, processed with equipment that used PFAS, or grown in PFAS-contaminated soil or water.
  • Commercial household products, including stain- and water-repellent fabrics, nonstick products (e.g., Teflon), polishes, waxes, paints, cleaning products, and fire-fighting foams (a major source of groundwater contamination at airports and military bases where firefighting training occurs).
  • Workplace, including production facilities or industries (e.g., chrome plating, electronics manufacturing or oil recovery) that use PFAS.
  • Drinking water, typically localized and associated with a specific facility (e.g., manufacturer, landfill, wastewater treatment plant, firefighter training facility).
  • Living organisms, including fish, animals and humans, where PFAS have the ability to build up and persist over time

PFAS are even found in animals in Antarctica. Here is a list of health effects again provided by the EPA:

  • Infant birth weights
  • Effects on the immune system
  • Cancer (for PFOA)
  • Thyroid hormone disruption (for PFOS).

PFOA and PFOS are specific kinds of PFAS. Perhaps of most interest right now because of the ongoing pandemic are the deleterious effects of these chemicals on the immune system including reducing the effectiveness of vaccines. And, perhaps the most important thing you need to know about PFAS is that scientists keep reducing their estimates of what is a safe exposure as more data accumulates.

PFAS have been around since the 1950s. So, how did these dangerous chemicals—which don’t break down in the environment—escape the notice of regulatory officials for so long? The answer is all too familiar and echoes similar trajectories for such toxic legacies as unleaded gasoline, glyphosate, chlorofluorocarbons, and bisphenol A.

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The toxic price of convenience

The toxic price of convenience

As many as 110 million Americans may be drinking water contaminated by a toxic class of chemicals that according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) are used in “stain- and water-repellent fabrics, nonstick products (e.g., Teflon), polishes, waxes, paints, cleaning products, and fire-fighting foams (a major source of groundwater contamination at airports and military bases where firefighting training occurs).”

The chemicals, referred to as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances or PFAS, were detected by EPA-mandated testing of U.S. water supplies between 2013 and 2015. The full results of that testing have not been made public. An analysis done by the Environmental Working Group using available data uncovered the widespread contamination. The group’s analysis was released last week.

Firefighting foams are a major source of the contamination, primarily from their release during routine training drills at both civilian and military airports. But the desire of consumers for nonstick pans and stain- and water-repellent clothing and carpets brings direct contact with the toxic chemicals.

The desire to make our lives maintenance-free often creates unintended environmental and health consequences. Every decision to transfer a maintenance task to a chemical substance only complicates the goal of creating a healthy environment. One solution is simply to have fewer things that require maintenance, thus reducing the time we spend on maintenance. Another is to accept that we have a duty to maintain the objects which serve us in a way that does not poison others or ourselves.The response to problem substances is typically to find another chemical to do the same job. We did that after phasing out chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), liquids previously used in refrigerators and air conditioners to transfer heat away from refrigerator and building interiors. CFCs were leaking into the atmosphere and destroying the ozone layer which protects living organisms from the Sun’s harmful ultraviolet radiation.

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