An overview of PFAS and how they impact our environmental health

According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), most people have been exposed to Perfluoroalkyl and Polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). The agency reports that human epidemiological studies have found increased cholesterol levels in exposed populations and instances of low infant birth weights, immunodeficiencies, cancer for Perfluorooctanoic Acid (PFOA) and thyroid hormone disruption for Perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS).

PFAS, also known as forever chemicals, are a group of man-made chemicals that have been manufactured and used in a variety of products around the world since the 1940s. Of this group of chemicals, PFOA and PFOS are the most extensively used and studied compounds.

In an interview with The News-Letter, Steven Chow, a post-doctoral fellow investigating exposures and physical-chemical treatments of PFAS in the environment within the Bloomberg School of Public Health, explained what they are.

“PFAS are chains of carbons that have fluorines attached to [them]. What is special about PFAS is that they have these carbon-fluorine bonds, which in chemistry are some of the strongest bonds, so they require a lot of chemical energy in order to be broken,” he said. “You can imagine that a compound full of these bonds is going to be really difficult to break down.”

The difficulty to break down these compounds gave rise to their “forever chemicals” nickname, since they accumulate and stay in the body and the environment forever.

According to the EPA, these chemicals are used in products such as our food packaging, non-stick cookware and fire-fighting foams. PFAS are also widely found in our water supplies because of the absorption of fire-fighting foams into groundwater and the disposal of PFAS into water supplies.

Some efforts are being made to understand the extent of this issue in Maryland. At the state’s General Assembly session, however, legislation that would have regulated the production and sale of products containing PFAS failed to pass. 

Instead, lawmakers held back funding for the Maryland Department of the Environment until it reports on the extent of PFAS contamination and develops a plan to remediate it.

In response to the mandatory and voluntary phase-outs of PFOA and PFOS put in place by the EPA, the chemical industry has tried to develop new alternatives. Chow broke down these new alternatives. 

“The industry has now shifted to compounds that tend to be shorter and have less carbons, or ones that have different types of chemical functionality by inserting one or two oxygens in between the carbon molecules to add a weak link that may allow these compounds to break down more easily in the environment,” he said. “What has been found with these compounds so far is that they are equally toxic, but since they do not accumulate as much in the body, they present a lower inherent risk.”

Chow also explained the effectiveness of current methods to remove PFAS from water supplies.

“Carbon filters are much better at removing the longer chain compounds, like PFOA and PFOS, than they are at removing shorter chain compounds,” he said. “Reverse osmosis has been shown to be much more effective on all types of PFAS, and you can go down to almost undetectable levels.”

There are currently no requirements for municipalities to filter PFAS out of their water, so if citizens want this compound removed, they have to install filtration systems themselves.

However, filtration does not destroy these compounds, it simply moves them from one location to another. Reverse osmosis leaves concentrated, contaminated water and the carbon filters are left with PFAS caught in them, both of which still have to be disposed of. This means that while PFAS may be removed from drinking water, they are still present in the environment. 

This issue was discussed in an undergraduate course called Science and Film, which was offered this spring semester by the Biophysics Department in collaboration with the Film and Media Studies Department. Professors Maria Procopio and Linda DeLibero invited Robert Bilott, a partner at Taft Law, to give a presentation on forever chemicals with the goal of spreading awareness among students on March 24. Bilott’s story was described in Todd Haynes’ 2019 film, Dark Waters, where he was portrayed by actor and activist Mark Ruffalo. 

The movie depicts his legal battle against Dupont Chemicals, which is a producer of forever chemicals. Bilott first took Dupont to court on behalf of 70,000 people from West Virginia and Ohio, whose water supply was contaminated by these chemicals back in 2001. 

The lawsuit was settled in 2004 with class benefits valued at $300 million, and Dupont agreed to build water filtration plants and private wells in affected districts.  However, Dupont and other sectors of the chemical industry continue to put out a variety of products using forever chemicals today. 

The EPA’s Audit Policy allows chemical industries to self-regulate, which permitted Dupont to decide how much of its chemicals should and not be allowed into the environment. 

In an interview with The News-Letter, Billot explained that the language used by chemical companies makes it difficult for others to know the dangers of their chemicals.

“The jargon around PFOAs is complicated. There is PFOA and C8 and perfluorooctanoic acid,” he said. “It’s all the same thing, but the different names are thrown around to make it more complicated so it is harder to understand and care about.” 

 Bilott explained that this issue is not widely talked about. 

“You don’t hear about it because this information was actively covered up,” he said. “There were attempts to really suppress this information, this story, continuing right up to the release of the movie Dark Waters. Nobody was talking about it.”