What Are PFAS?
May 10 2021
Short for perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, PFAS are a collection of more than 4,700 chemicals that have been developed by industry to fulfil a number of different purposes. PFAS are a completely manmade phenomenon and do not occur anywhere naturally in our environment. Crucially, they are incredibly persistent, taking a thousand years or more to degrade in the atmosphere.
It’s for this reason that they’re known as “forever chemicals”. Indeed, the longevity of PFAS – plus their effortless mobility – means that they can accumulate over time and infiltrate all parts of the globe. Today, PFAS are found almost everywhere, from the pizza box that your takeaway dinner arrives in to the bloodstreams of you and your loved ones to even polar bears living at the North Pole.
Breaking down the science
PFAS are created by merging a chain of carbon molecules with a fluorine element. It’s this carbon-fluorine bond that is responsible for their incredibly long lifespan, since it’s notoriously one of the strongest connections known to man. PFAS are generally divided into polymers and non-polymers; the former refers to those with 12 or more carbon molecules in their chain, while the latter covers all else.
PFAS were first developed in the 1940s and were used to imbue surfaces or materials with water-, stain- or grease-resistant properties. Today, their deployment extends far beyond those simplistic applications (although they are still very much in use), encompassing enhanced oil recovery, firefighter foam creation, food processing equipment and many, many more uses.
It wasn’t until the 1970s that scientists began to realise that PFAS had some concerning properties. To date, there are some PFAS which researchers have not been able to determine a half-life for, meaning they cannot place a timescale on how long it will take the chemicals to disappear from our environment. As such, PFAS are a problem as pervasive as plastic pollution – but an invisible one.
Although our understanding of the full impacts of prolonged exposure to PFAS is not complete, studies have shown that having high levels of the chemicals in your bloodstream can lead to a whole host of health problems. In particular, PFAS have been linked to both kidney and testicular cancer, as well as elevated cholesterol levels, pregnancy-induced hypertension, thyroid disease and ulcerative colitis.
What can be done?
Although it’s virtually impossible to avoid coming into contact with PFAS through the air we breathe, the materials we handle and the food we consume, it is essential to ensure that we limit our exposure as much as possible. Since PFAS have the potential to bypass wastewater treatment filters and infiltrate water supplies, regular testing is necessary to monitor concentrations of the chemicals in the water we depend upon for our survival as a species.
Due to the varied nature of PFAS components, testing a sample of water for their presence is no small challenge. However, advancements are being made in the field which make the process simpler and easier. The article Screening technique for Adsorbable Organic Fluoride (AOF) concentrations with the Xprep C-IC goes into detail on one of the most promising recent developments in this field.
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