Scientists around the globe are concerned about the increasing number of poly- and perfluoroalkyl substances (PFASs) being produced and released into the environment. These substances are used as surfactants and water and oil repellents in various consumer products including clothing, furnishings, cosmetics and food packaging.
In a statement published in the U.S. Environmental Health Perspectives Journal, a group of scientists warned governments, manufacturers, purchasing organizations, retailers and consumers about the dangers of PFASs and encouraged them to take action to reduce their use.
PFASs can be found in indoor and outdoor environments, wildlife, human tissue and bodily fluids. The chemicals are emitted via industrial processes, military and firefighting operations, and migrate out of consumer products into air, household dust, food, soil and ground, surface water—even drinking water.
According to Canada’s National Collaborating Center for Environmental Health, types of perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs) have been linked to lower birth weight, higher odds of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), reduced fertility, increased cholesterol and increased rates of bladder and prostate cancer in perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) manufacturing facility workers.
Although, PFASs have been phased out in the U.S. and are regulated in countries around the world, the most common replacements are short-chain PFASs with similar structures. While these substitutes seem to be less likely to accumulate in various tissues, scientists argue they are still as environmentally persistent as long-chain PFASs.
So, a switch to short-chain or other fluorinated alternatives may not reduce the amount of PFASs in the environment. Because some of the shorter-chain substances are less effective, larger quantities may be needed to provide the same performance.
Many fluorinated alternatives are being marketed, but little information is publicly available on their chemical structures, properties, uses and toxicological profiles.
The report notes that increasing the use of fluorinated alternatives will lead to increasing levels of stable perfluorinated degradation products in the environment, increasing the risks of adverse effects on human health and the environment.
Initial efforts to estimate overall emissions of PFASs into the environment have been limited due to uncertainties related to product formulations, quantities of production, production locations, efficiency of emission controls and long-term trends in production history. In many parts of the world, the technical capacity to destroy these chemicals is currently insufficient.
For these reasons, the group urges international scientists, governments, chemical and product manufacturers, purchasing organizations, retailers and consumers to follow their recommended actions:
- Chemical manufacturers to make data on PFASs publicly available, provide scientists with standard samples of the substances, work with scientists and governments to develop safe disposal methods for PFASs and develop nonfluorinated alternatives that are neither persistent nor toxic.
- Product manufacturers to stop using PFASs where they are not essential or when safer alternatives exist, develop inexpensive and sensitive PFAS quantification methods for compliance testing, label products containing these substances and invest in the development and use of nonfluorinated alternatives.
- Purchasing organizations, retailers and individual consumers to avoid products containing or manufactured using PFASs, including those that are stain-resistant, waterproof or nonstick. They also urge these groups to question the use of such fluorinated “performance” chemicals added to consumer products.
- For governments to enact legislation to require only essential uses of PFASs and enforce labeling to indicate uses, work with the industry to develop public registries of products containing these chemicals and make public annual statistical data on production, imports and exports of them.
- Regulators require manufacturers of PFASs to conduct more extensive toxicological testing, make chemical structures public, provide validated analytical methods for detection of PFASs and assume extended producer responsibility and implement safe disposal of products and stockpiles containing these chemicals.