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PFAS aka 'forever chemicals'

3 minute read

PFAS (Per- and poly- fluoroalkyl substances), nicknamed ‘forever chemicals’ are a highly persistent group of several thousand chemicals. Find out more about them, why they're a problem and what we're doing about it below.

What are PFAS?

PFAS (Per- and poly- fluoroalkyl substances), nicknamed ‘forever chemicals’ are a highly persistent group of several thousand chemicals.

PFAS are everywhere. Your non-stick pan? Probably PFAS. Your waterproof coat? Possibly PFAS. Your greaseproof paper? Yep, you guessed it! PFAS.

PFAS can give items both waterproof and greaseproof properties and withstand a lot of heat. They're also very unreactive, so they don't break down easily. But these characteristics that make them so wonderful for these applications are also their downfall...they don’t break down in the environment, hence their apt nickname, forever chemicals.

PFAS are also able to move in water very easily. They have been found in rivers, seawater and even drinking water as water treatment plants are currently unable to effectively remove them.

PFAS have also travelled all the way to polar regions, miles from any industrial or consumer behaviour involving them.

The problem with PFAS

PFAS are a key group of chemicals that need to be more restricted, due to the sheer extent of their uses and occurrence in everyday products.

They are currently impossible to remove from the ocean and as they are a large family of several thousand chemicals, regulating by a chemical-by-chemical approach is taking far too long.

There are many routes for PFAS into the environment, for example; firefighting foam can be directly released into the environment, or household cleaning products and cosmetics containing PFAS can be washed down the drain and indirectly enter the environment.

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Credit: Daniel Tausis / Unsplash

PFAS have been shown to impact bottlenose dolphins in the USA, where links were shown between increased levels of PFAS and effects on immune, blood, kidney and liver function.

PFAS exposure has also been linked to impacts on the immune function of sea otters, neurological impacts in polar bears as well as negative effects on fish and seabirds.

These are not isolated incidents and chemical pollution has already been revealed to be one of the main drivers of the current biodiversity crisis.

The threat of persistent chemicals is not new. So-called legacy chemicals like PCBs continue to wreak havoc decades after they were banned.

The UK’s killer whale population haven't had offspring in several years as a result of severe PCB pollution. In a similar way to PCBs, PFAS are highly persistent and nearly impossible to remove from the environment.

We must act now to prevent PFAS leaving a similar, if not worse, legacy to PCBs for future generations.

The only option to prevent PFAS pollution in the environment is to stop them at source, now.

Bottlenose Dolphin playing Chanonry

Credit: Chanonry via Shutterstock

What needs to be done?

Governments:

  • Remain aligned with EU REACH regulations to ensure any restriction of PFAS in the EU is also applied to the UK (ongoing).
  • Enhance the regulatory framework for persistent chemicals by implementing a grouping approach rather than banning the individual PFAS one at a time, to ensure PFAS are banned in all non-essential uses by 2025.
  • Encourage the addition of all PFAS chemicals rather than individual ones as an amendment to the Stockholm convention at the next and any necessary future meetings.

Retailers and manufacturers:

  • Commit to immediately phasing out all PFAS chemicals in products and begin replacing them with safer alternatives, with all products containing alternatives to PFAS by 2022.
  • Label products containing PFAS (or not) clearly so that consumers can make informed decisions about buying PFAS-free products.

Water companies:

  • Improve testing criteria to ensure a full spectrum of PFAS are tested regularly rather than limiting testing to a few specific PFAS.

What we're doing

Our goal is to stop the continued impact of PFAS on our marine environment and the wildlife that lives there.

We're working to raise awareness of PFAS and their impacts on the marine environment.

We are calling for Governments to ban the use of all PFAS in all non-essential uses and asking businesses to remove PFAS from their products.

Alongside several other NGO’s including CHEM Trust, Fidra, Breast Cancer UK and others, we are calling for immediate action to be taken on PFAS.

In a recent joint response, we have presented the case for urgent, group-based regulation to prevent further PFAS pollution in the UK environment: (https://www.pfasfree.org.uk/ngo-response-pfas-rmoa)

UPDATE: May 2022

We've sent a joint letter to UK Government, alongside fellow health and environment organisations including CHEM Trust and Fidra, calling for an urgent ban on all unnecessary PFAS usage. You can read the full letter here and the statement in full here.

What can you do?

As an individual it’s very difficult to avoid PFAS as they're in so many different products.

Instead, you can get involved in citizen science projects providing vital information on the prevalence of PFAS. Fidra is asking people to conduct a simple 'bead test' on food packaging.

Here's what you need to do:

  1. Collect paper and cardboard food packaging; this could be from the food stored in your home or from when you have been out to eat.
  2. Using a homemade dropper or pencil, drop a small amount of olive oil onto the packaging. Does the droplet soak in or spread out, or form a perfect little bead? Test both sides of the packaging to be sure.
  3. Take a picture and submit your results!

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Credit: Kristina Bratko / Unsplash

Keep an eye out on our website for other ways to get involved and call for action on PFAS. You can stay up to date with our campaigns by signing up to receive our monthly newsletter.

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