What Are the Health Effects of PFAS?
May 19 2021
PFAS, or “forever chemicals”, are a collection of over 4,000 synthetic chemicals which are notable for their ability to persist in the environment for incredibly long periods of time. Perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl acids (as they are more formally known) are comprised of carbon and fluorine bonds, which make them very resilient and allow them to endure in our atmosphere for such a long time, as sophisticated monitoring methods have shown.
PFAS have been around for well over half a century, but it’s only in recent years that the scientific community has begun to wake up to the potential dangers they pose to the human body. Because they’re so long-lasting and so robust, they can infiltrate air, soil and rivers, bypass wastewater treatment filtration systems and accumulate over time into quite significant proportions in the body, causing suspected damage to its internal organs.
Concerning research results
PFAS are widely used in a variety of applications, from applying a stain- or water-resistant layer to clothing, furniture and textiles to a non-stick element to cookware. This means that we are exposed to them on a daily basis, allowing concentrations of the chemicals to build up in our systems over time. The fact that they do not degrade for a very long time only exacerbates this situation.
Once scientists realised just how long PFAS can last – which could be over a thousand years – they began conducting research into their effects on the human body. Although more studies are required to conclusively prove their findings, the preliminary results do not make for pleasant reading. Many PFAS chemicals have shown links to cancer, potential problems for unborn babies and issues with the reproductive and immune systems. In particular, PFAS have been linked to six concerning health complications, which include:
- Cancer of the kidneys
- Cancer of the testes
- High cholesterol levels
- Hypertension induced by pregnancy
- Thyroid disease
- Ulcerative colitis
Although the authors of reports written to date stress that more research is required to find definitive links between PFAS exposure and the above complaints, the early signs indicate that these forever chemicals could cause serious problems for human health.
The law intervenes
Given the almost ubiquitous nature of PFAS chemicals – and the fact that they endure in our environment for a length of time far outspanning the products which contain them or the people who use them – there have understandably been widespread concerns about our exposure to them. In certain instances, the governments of countries have stepped in to ban the production of the chemicals in question.
Two of the most notorious culprits are PFOS and PFOA, or perfluorosulfonates and perfluorocarboxylic acids to give them their full names. These are the two chemicals which have been studied most heavily due to their widespread use and as such, the majority of our understanding of how PFAS chemicals work stem from this research.
After finding the aforementioned links between PFOS and PFOA and the health issues outlined above, the governments of countries like the UK, the USA and the EU prohibited their sale within their jurisdiction. However, they are still often used in other, less strict parts of the globe. Once in the atmosphere, they have the ability to persist and to permeate across borders and into other regions, meaning that no one will be safe from them until they are completely abolished – and even then, they will likely stick around for a millennium or more.
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