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The Ever-Increasing PFAS Footprint: Agriculture, Firefighting, Tap Water, and More

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One group of chemicals taking up much of the headline space these days is PFAS or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances. This is a complex group of over 12,000 chemicals containing strong carbon-fluorine bonds.

Their chemistry was discovered back in the 1930s itself. However, they only became popular in commercial/industrial applications by the 1950s. PFAS were mainly used in producing water-resistant or non-stick products due to their unique ability to repel water, oil, and grease. 

Shockingly, these chemicals have now filled the whole world in a very tangible sense. In other words, their humble footprint has expanded to include food products, underground water, etc. It would not be an understatement to say that traces of PFAS could be found in every creature’s blood (varying levels).

This includes humans, animals, and plant species. In this article, we will dive into understanding the ever-increasing PFAS footprint and its implications.

 The Forever Chemicals Take Over Modern Food

As mentioned earlier, PFAS naturally repel water, grease, and oil. This makes them an attractive choice for the food packaging industry. Also, all non-stick cookware is coated with a layer of these chemicals for hassle-free (oil-free) cooking.

On the surface, this would seem like a harmless idea (even healthy). However, nothing could be further from the truth as we shall discuss. A study conducted across 17 countries found that the food packaging (including cardboard, micro-fiber food containers, and paper) used by major fast food joints like McDonald’s, Dunkin’ Donuts, Burger King, and KFC were lined with PFAS.

The same was done to maintain grease resistance. Over 50 samples (out of the 119 that were tested) had PFAS levels that surpassed the EU’s proposed limits. Not only that, but the contamination extended to four samples of non-grease-resistant recycled paper. This posed a threat to the credibility of the circular economy.

PFAS are known to be hormone disruptors and can lead to issues like infertility and endocrine system imbalances. Since most fast food joints are frequented by the youths, this meant their long-term health was in danger.

 Far-Reaching Health and Environmental Consequences 

Are hormonal issues bad enough? Yes, but PFAS are a much greater health hazard than that. Besides the food and agricultural industry, these chemicals constitute the main ingredient for manufacturing firefighting foam.

Precisely, they are used to produce Class B firefighting foam or Aqueous Film Forming Foam (AFFF). This foam is used heavily to put out fires of a Class B nature (caused by liquid fuels like jet fuel). The foam’s low viscosity makes it highly effective for such a practice, but all of it comes at a high price.

Studies have found that firefighters have a 14% higher risk of being diagnosed with cancer than the regular population. The AFFF foam cancer issue is a growing crisis as thousands of firefighters have filed personal injury lawsuits against PFAS manufacturers like 3M and DuPont.

According to TorHoerman Law, the litigation also includes water contamination lawsuits filed by municipalities with PFAS-polluted underground water. Being practically unbreakable, the carbon-fluorine bond of these chemicals has led to 180 Superfund sites requiring PFAS management. It may take as long as five decades before any permanent solution is on the horizon.

 PFAS Have Now Become Impossible to Escape

By now, we saw that PFAS can lead to hormonal issues as well as cancers of the testicles and kidneys (especially among firefighters who are constantly exposed to these chemicals). What’s even more saddening is the fact that scientists have deemed PFAS to be ‘impossible to escape.’

Their production has gone so out of control that at least half of US tap water has traces of PFAS in it. Moreover, rainwater samples from different parts of the world (including Antarctica) were found to have PFAS in them.

From simple personal hygiene items like dental floss to stain-resistant carpets and duvet covers, PFAS have infiltrated every inch of modern society. Seen as a growing health risk worldwide, countries have decided to ban PFAS production completely (mostly by the end of 2025).

 Finally, 3M (the primary defendant in the PFAS firefighting foam litigation) has agreed to pay $10.3 billion as water contamination case settlements. The company has also promised to stop PFAS production by the end of 2025.

As of now, personal injury cases are yet to be taken up for Bellwether trials. On the other hand, research is underway to discover effective and non-toxic alternatives for PFAS-based firefighting foam. The coating in non-stick cookware and other commercial items will also likely be replaced (when relevant alternatives are discovered).

The world is preparing itself for a cleaner future, where PFAS becomes a distant memory. The only sad part is that this may take a while (given the aftermath of decades of PFAS production and use).