PFAS, or per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances, are a group of man-made chemicals that have been used for decades in a wide range of industrial and consumer products. These chemicals are often referred to as “forever chemicals” because they do not break down in the environment and can accumulate in our bodies over time.
In today’s article, we will take a closer look at PFAS chemicals, why they are dangerous, where they are found, and how they affect your health.
Why Are PFAS Chemicals Dangerous?
When people hear that PFAS is a term for a “group” of chemicals, they don’t realize that this includes more than 4,700 chemicals. They also have trouble understanding why these chemicals are worse than others. What makes them so bad?
According to Professor Graham Peaslee from the University of Notre Dame, PFAS chemicals are toxic even at low levels. He explains that these chemicals have the ability to stay in groundwater for thousands of years.
Normally, chemicals that are dangerous have extensive regulations on how they can be used. However, with PFAS chemicals, there is very little regulation. Manufacturers have so far been free to use them as they please.
This situation occurs because there is little federal-level oversight and regulation. Thankfully, many states are starting to draft their own regulatory legislation.
The means by which you can be exposed to PFAS chemicals are also why they are considered dangerous. Exposure can occur via consuming contaminated food and water.
Even eating fish that has been caught in water with PFAS chemicals puts you at risk. You can be exposed to the chemicals if you happen to eat food grown near places where PFAS chemicals were used.
These chemicals can be ingested by accident as well. Young children that crawl around on the floor and put items in their mouths are particularly at risk.
Where Are PFAS Chemicals Found?
PFAS chemicals are most commonly used in AFFF-based fire extinguishers. There have been many instances where people exposed to the PFAS chemicals in AFFF (aqueous film-form foam) extinguishers and in other gear developed cancers. Lawsuits due to such events have been going on for some time now, but change rarely occurs.
In fact, AFFF lawsuit settlement amounts are estimated to be around $300,000, depending on the strength of the case. This shouldn’t be surprising. Even with insurance, many families end up devastated financially and otherwise when they spend a lot of time in hospitals.
TorHoerman Law, an Illinois-based law firm, often releases updates on AFFF lawsuits. According to this source, previous settlement amounts have included companies like DuPont that have paid $671 million to settle thousands of suits.
AFFF fire extinguishers are difficult to replace due to how much of a part they are in firefighting service. They are even used in the military during training operations. Reports of their risk have reached the Department of Defense, too. In 2021, they looked into about seven hundred military installations where AFFF firefighting foam is used during training.
PFAS chemicals are also used by certain manufacturers of recyclable food packaging. For example, takeout packaging and other inexpensive, one-use items. Chemist, Rae Eaton, from the Washington State Department of Ecology, bemoans how such one-use items contain chemicals that last for hundreds of years.
How Do PFAS Chemicals Affect Your Health?
Multiple studies and reports have suggested that exposure to PFAS chemicals may be associated with kidney and prostate cancer, as well as other types of cancer. This is thought to be due to the ability of these chemicals to accumulate in the body over time, leading to long-term exposure.
PFAS exposure may increase the risk of cancer by disrupting DNA repair mechanisms, which can lead to the accumulation of mutations in cells and eventually, the development of cancer.
PFAS chemicals have also been shown to interfere with immune system function, which contributes to the development of cancer by allowing cancer cells to evade detection and destruction by the immune system.
Cancer is but one of the many health issues that PFAS chemicals bring. Conditions relating to reproduction, thyroid disease, liver damage, and more are also a side-effect. PFAS chemicals have also been known to increase cholesterol levels and the risk of obesity.
Sadly, it appears that manufacturers and companies will continue to use these chemicals until proper regulations are comprehensively implemented. Even with the
awareness that these chemicals are harmful, they are still used extensively by many industries.
At the moment, it is simply too much of a logistical challenge to suddenly cease usage of PFAS-based products. However, due to investigations, lobbying from environmentalists, and increasing awareness, some first steps are starting to be taken.
Many government departments are taking a stand against AFFF extinguishers and switching to alternatives. The Department of Defense was recently ordered by Congress to switch to safer fire extinguishers. We hope that this is the beginning of many more such steps.