Perpetual pollutants: what are the health risks of PFAS?

Very little degradable, they are called “eternal pollutants”. Perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances – PFAS pronounced “pifasse” – are man-made substances made from hydrocarbons. In total, this large family includes more than 4,700 chemical compounds that have been found in everyday products and objects since the 1950s: leather, paints, cosmetics, food packaging, non-stick pan coatings, textiles, etc.

This Thursday, April 4, 2024, MPs will begin examining a proposed law backed by environmentalists to restrict the production and sale of certain products containing these perennial pollutants. The text thus establishes a ban on cosmetics, kitchen utensils, wax products, textiles on January 1, 2026, with the exception of professional equipment, which will be affected on January 1, 2030. While manufacturers are rebelling against the measure, the outcome of the debates is uncertain. On Thursday morning, the National Assembly removed kitchen utensils from the list of affected products.

These substances have earned the nickname “persistent pollutants” due to their ability to persist in the environment. They have different properties to achieve this: non-stick, waterproof, resistant to high heat. On a chemical level, it is the very stable carbon-fluorine bonds contained in PFAS that make them products with very little degradability in the environment.

Subfamilies are formed according to the number of carbon atoms that make them up; the more they contain, the more persistent they are. “One of the best-known subfamilies is PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid) and PFOS (perfluorooctane sulfonate), the latter of which is the most persistent in the environment,” ANSES specifies.

Where are PFAS found?

In water, air, soil, dust… eternal pollutants are everywhere. The entire population is exposed to it daily, by drinking, eating, breathing. A survey carried out by 17 European newsrooms (Forever pollution project) in 2023 showed through environmental samples that “Europe has more than 17,000 sites contaminated at levels that require the attention of public authorities (above 10 nanograms per liter).

“Contamination there reaches levels considered dangerous to health by experts we interviewed (more than 100 nanograms per liter) in more than 2,100 ‘contamination hot spots,'” wrote Le Monde, a member of the survey’s partner media group . In total, 23,000 sites in Europe are thought to be contaminated and 21,500 are suspected to be contaminated.

PFAS concentrations in human blood would thus be higher than the reference levels of the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA). According to the researchers, children are the most vulnerable group of the population and exposure during pregnancy and breastfeeding is the main vector of PFAS in infants.

Cancer, reduced immunity, influence on development in utero…

The toxic effects of PFAS on health are numerous and have been listed by the European Environment Agency (EEB):

– disorders of the thyroid gland;

– increase in cholesterol level;

– liver problems;

– kidney, testicular and breast cancer;

– delayed fetal development;

– increased risk of miscarriage;

– infertility;

– the risk of preeclampsia in pregnant women;

– inflammatory bowel disease.

In children, exposure in utero is suspected to increase the risk of obesity, precocious puberty and male infertility.

In 2020, the European Food Safety Authority drew attention to the interference of PFAS with the immune system. Quoted by Anses, she then believed “that the reduction of the immune response to vaccination represents the most critical effect on human health”.

Please note: several compounds are restricted at European level. Others, like PFOA, are banned. A directive should soon ban them in food packaging. The Drinking Water Directive with threshold values ​​that must not be exceeded is a first step that is already being implemented. The European Union is considering a global ban in the coming years.

PFAS: The Forever Chemicals and Their Health Risks

Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), also known as “forever chemicals,” are a growing concern due to their widespread presence, persistence in the environment, and potential health risks. These man-made chemicals have been around since the 1940s and are used in various industrial applications and consumer products due to their unique properties like water and stain repellency.

However, the very characteristic that makes them useful – their strong chemical bonds – also makes them nearly impossible to break down naturally. This leads to PFAS accumulating in our environment, contaminating water sources, soil, and even food. As a result, human exposure to PFAS is a significant public health concern.

Health Risks of PFAS Exposure:

While research on the health effects of PFAS is ongoing, several studies have linked exposure to these chemicals with various health problems, including:

  • Increased Cancer Risk: Some PFAS have been linked to an increased risk of certain cancers, including kidney cancer, testicular cancer, and thyroid cancer.
  • Developmental Issues: Exposure during pregnancy and early childhood is a particular concern. PFAS exposure may be linked to low birth weight, impaired fetal development, and problems with the immune system.
  • Hormonal Disruption: PFAS can interfere with the body’s hormones, potentially leading to issues like thyroid problems, decreased fertility, and altered menstrual cycles.
  • High Cholesterol: Studies suggest a possible link between PFAS exposure and increased cholesterol levels.
  • Immune System Suppression: PFAS may weaken the immune system’s ability to fight off infections and diseases.

It’s important to note that the severity of health risks likely depends on the type and level of PFAS exposure.

Who is Most at Risk?

  • People who live in areas with contaminated drinking water sources are at higher risk of exposure.
  • Workers in industries that manufacture or use PFAS are more likely to be exposed.
  • Consuming contaminated fish or food products can also lead to PFAS exposure.
  • Infants and young children are particularly vulnerable due to their developing bodies.

Reducing PFAS Exposure:

While eliminating PFAS completely from our lives might be challenging, here are some steps you can take to minimize exposure:

  • Drink filtered water: Especially if you’re concerned about PFAS contamination in your local water supply.
  • Limit processed foods: Opt for fresh fruits, vegetables, and whole grains whenever possible.
  • Avoid certain products: Look for PFAS-free alternatives for products like non-stick cookware, stain repellents, and some waterproof clothing.
  • Stay informed: Keep yourself updated on PFAS testing and regulations in your area.

The Future of PFAS:

Scientists and policymakers are actively researching PFAS and exploring ways to remove them from the environment and develop safer alternatives. As research progresses, our understanding of the health risks associated with PFAS will likely continue to evolve. However, by taking steps to minimize exposure and staying informed, you can help protect yourself and your loved ones.

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