PFAS chemicals have become a growing environmental concern in recent years due to their potential for polluting water, air, soil, and other natural resources.
As the name implies, these chemicals are found in many everyday items like non-stick cookware, carpets, clothing treatments, firefighting foam and food packaging.
PFAS not only enters the environment but can also accumulate in living organisms - meaning we may be exposed to them through our diets or even by simply being near areas where these materials have been used.
In this guide, we will discuss what PFAS are and how they’re making their way into both the environment and humanity – as well as what can be done to avoid them or reduce exposure where possible.
What are PFAS?
PFAS, also known as perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, are man-made chemicals that have been used in a variety of industrial manufacturing processes since the 1950s.
They are often referred to as ‘forever chemicals’ because they can take hundreds of years to decompose and they do not easily break down in soil or water.
These chemicals have been found in our environment, including drinking water sources, rivers and lakes, soils and sediments.
Because of their persistence and mobility in the environment, PFAS chemicals can be toxic to both humans and animals when ingested.
As a result, research is now being conducted to determine the extent of our exposure levels to these chemicals as well as to find ways to reduce our contact with them.
PFAS in water and the environment
PFAS are making their way into our water sources through various channels.
The most common is through wastewater treatment plant discharges. Wastewater treatment is usually not sufficient to remove all PFAS chemicals, so a large portion of wastewater discharged into rivers and streams will contain them.
PFAS can also enter the water supply in other ways.
Industrial factories often use PFAS chemicals for various processes that may release those substances into local waterways. Even everyday products like nonstick cookware or cleaning supplies can contain PFAS contaminants which, if dumped down sinks or other drains, can make their way into water sources.
PFAS also seep into the environment through landfills and sewage treatment plants. The excessive amounts of contaminants released by industries into our environment over the years have posed severe risks to the health of surrounding ecosystems and human populations.
In addition to water contamination, PFAS can also enter the environment through airborne contamination. When these chemicals are used in firefighting foams or industrial processes, they can enter the atmosphere and eventually settle on the ground or in water sources. Once they are present in the environment, they can persist and accumulate.
Several studies have been conducted on the presence and prevalence of PFAS contamination in our water and environment. These studies have found that PFAS are present in water sources across the globe, with high levels of contamination found near industrial facilities where PFAS are used.
The Forever Project recently released a new map showing the extent of Europe’s PFAS.
The investigation revealed that PFAS chemicals contaminate more than 17,000 sites across the continent. An additional 22,000 sites are presumed contaminated due to current or past industrial activity.
Further topics in this essential guide:
- PFAS in drinking water: what are the latest findings?
- How to remove PFAS from water
- PFAS water filters: what are the available options
- What is the latest EPA drinking water stance on PFAS?
- The future