Is it Possible to Take the ‘Forever’ Out of Forever Chemicals? A Deep Dive 

Forever chemicals are nothing short of an enigma. After all, they’ve existed for a few decades, are recently the hype, and may last indefinitely. A name given to per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), forever chemicals are made of strong carbon-fluorine bonds. 

These chemicals were discovered in the 1930s, but their commercial production only started in the mid-1950s. The primary manufacturer of PFAS was 3M, making these chemicals available for non-stick cookware, stain-resistant upholstery, firefighting foam, etc. 

Today, PFAS are wreaking havoc on the human body and the environment. The situation is so grave that it begs the question – can we take the ‘forever’ out of forever chemicals? In this article, we will explore this dilemma in detail. 

The Problem with PFAS 

Now, let’s begin by discussing why PFAS were termed the ‘forever chemicals’ in the first place. As mentioned previously, these chemicals share different bonds of carbon and fluorine, all of which are synthetic in nature. 

In total, there may be over 12,000 types of PFAS, including the most widely studied – perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA). Though man has been able to produce PFAS widely, the same cannot be said about their elimination. 

In other words, PFAS do not easily break down in the human body or the environment. That would not have been much of a problem if the chemicals were non-toxic. Sadly, they have been considered to be human carcinogens (to varying degrees). 

One prime example of PFAS toxicity is how they affected firefighters who were consistently exposed via Class B firefighting foam. Also known as Aqueous Film Forming Foam, AFFF was used for extinguishing liquid-fuel fires because of its low viscosity. 

After years of exposure, TruLaw states that many firefighters developed cancer of the bladder, testicles, and kidneys. Not only that but the underground water in areas polluted by PFAS became unfit for consumption. 

PFAS manufacturers like 3M were sued for both reasons. In 2017, the first wave of AFFF lawsuits was filed, which turned into a multi-district litigation (MDL) in 2018. Today, water contamination cases have been settled to a large extent. It is expected that personal injury cases will be taken up for trial next year. 

Now, this example was horrifying yet extreme. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) lists various other health effects of being exposed to PFAS through soil, water, or air. These include reproductive issues, developmental delays in children, reduced immune response, and high cholesterol levels, among others. 

PFAS Deemed to Be Inescapable 

We just discussed the indefinite or eternal nature of PFAS as well as their health and environmental repercussions. The only thing is that the threat of these chemicals goes much deeper. 

In other words, PFAS are not only inescapable in the sense that they may last forever but they are ubiquitous too. Every household may have items that contain varying levels of PFAS, including stain-resistant garments, dental floss, non-stick cookware, etc. 

Besides that, these chemicals can easily linger in the atmosphere. Plus, scientists discovered that PFAS were found in rainwater samples worldwide (even in Antarctica). Packaged food items and takeaways also contain PFAS. 

If an accurate estimation is made, it would be safe to assume that every person alive today has some traces of PFAS in their blood. A recent study also found that ‘junk food’ or processed meats, soda, butter, etc., will only increase these chemicals’ concentration in the body. 

Research Underway for PFAS Detection and Removal 

The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) has some more shocking news. It talks about the half-life of different PFAS. This refers to the amount of time taken for 50% of the chemical to eliminate the human body once exposure has stopped. 

While some PFAS’ half-life extends to a couple of hours, others can stay for as long as 35 years. Let’s not forget that we are talking about 50% elimination only after exposure has stopped. This should emphasize the importance of finding a concrete solution for PFAS removal. 

Research is underway for better detection and removal of PFAS. For instance – scientists from the University of Rochester have found an electrocatalysis method using laser-made nanomaterials to remove PFAS. This experiment was particularly focused on PFOS or perfluorooctane sulfonate. 

Similarly, chemists at Northwestern University have discovered a simple method to break down stubborn carbon-fluorine chains into benign end products. Researchers and scientists worldwide are rigorously looking for a one-stop solution for PFAS remediation. 

As of now, these technologies or processes are in their nascent stages. Only those methods that stand the test of time will be put into practice on a mass scale. One good news is that PFAS production will be completely banned by the end of 2025. Hopefully, the world will have a foolproof way of eliminating the existing traces of these chemicals by then. 


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