Firefighting foam is just one aspect of an emerging global environmental crisis with grave implications for biodiversity and public health.
In a special report for Ooska News, I look at the contamination of water resources with PFAS, also known as “forever chemicals” caused by firefighting foams. It is one specific example that scratches the surface of a far wider problem.
PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances) is group of manmade chemicals, numbering anywhere from 5,000 to 9,000 distinct compounds, and ubiquitous in consumer and industrial products, from food packaging to firefighting foams. Their persistence (they take hundreds, if not thousands, of years to break down in the environment) means they bioaccumulate in water, soil, plants and animals … including us. Studies indicate that PFAS is present in 99% of the global population.
PFAS have also been proven to cause a wide range of illnesses and health problems including various forms of cancers, kidney and liver disease, fertility issues, birth defects, ulcerative colitis and immunodeficiency diseases. Only a small number of these chemicals are regulated, and testing has so far been limited to a handful of specific variants.
Dr. Kerry Dinsmore is a scientist working for Scottish environmental research charity Fidra. Her focus is on the impact of PFAS compounds spreading from diffuse sources relating to consumer products. The concern is that, because PFAS are used in so many consumer products, pinpointing sources of contamination is a race regulators are destined to lose.
Dinsmore feels they are struggling to get a handle on the situation and fear “opening a can of worms”, as she put its. “There are so many emerging contaminants that the regulators are rushing to catch up, and they are very limited in both capacity and funding,” says Dinsmore, adding: “PFAS probably should have been higher up on the priority list.”
She points to the latest scientific opinion from European Food Standards Agency (EFSA), which identifies the biggest sources of PFAS as drinking water as well as eggs, certain crops and meat: “That’s coming from environmental contamination. [It’s] getting into the food chain, whether it’s going into the grasses that the cows are eating, and we are eating the cow, or whether it’s going in through other routes. But we’re getting that environmental contamination both through drinking water and in our food chain.”
And as consumers try to move away from single-use plastics in a bid to be environmentally friendly, it has emerged we are inadvertently adding to the PFAS problem through recyclable paper and cardboard packaging. Research conducted by Dinsmore on behalf of Fidra suggests that “over 30% of food packaging [in the UK] is highly likely to contain PFAS”. And worryingly, food packaging badged as “biodegradable” or “compostable” also contains PFAS. While the structure of the packaging breaks down quickly, the chemicals within it do not. Consumers are unwittingly adding PFAS to the environment by putting such packaging into local food recycling systems and onto their own compost heaps. This tainted compost is then spread on fields and gardens, where it enters the food chain through crops and livestock, as well as leaching into water courses.
Fidra found by far the highest concentrations in moulded fibre takeaway boxes, often sold commercially under the names “sugarcane” or “bagasse”. It notes in its report that “The presence of PFAS in moulded fibre products is widely recognised within the food packaging industry. A 2018 report by the Centre for Environmental Health advised purchasers to avoid moulded fibre
foodware, and urged manufacturers to prioritise the removal of PFAS from their products”. Fidra gathered the samples used in its research during October and November 2019.
Dinsmore points out that US and EU standards permit packaging to be registered as compostable as long as PFAS levels do not exceed 100 parts per million (ppm). “The ones we measured go well beyond that,” she stresses, adding that Fidra is having difficulty finding out exactly how compostability standards are being enforced. “People aren’t testing it. People aren’t looking at this,” she says. “Compostability is a really big issue for us, a very urgent one. And it’s very unfair on people that are trying to do the right thing.”
And it is this hidden, diffuse spread and circulation of PFAS within the environment that is giving scientists and environmentalists the greatest cause for concern.
For instance, several studies have been carried out into the presence of PFAS in breastmilk. A recent study published in Environmental Science & Technology and reported in The Guardian is the first in 15 years to examine levels of PFAS in breastmilk in the US. The study found PFAS in every single one of the samples taken from 50 women aged 24-42 and from a diverse range of backgrounds. All of them lived in or around Seattle, Washington.
The study shows that levels of two specific types that have now been banned or restricted (PFOA and PFOS) are still widespread (in 86-100% of samples), but at generally lower concentrations than in sampling from 2004. However, there were high concentrations of other new PFAS chemicals that are still in use. Two of particular concern are PFHxA and PFHpA which “have been shown to form as a result of biotic transformation or atmospheric oxidation of 6:2 FTOH found in high concentrations in stain-protected textiles, food packaging, waxes, and sealers and to increase in concentration with weathering of textiles”, according to the findings.
Because of the self-regulating nature of the chemicals industry, the onus is on public bodies and regulators to pinpoint problems and clamp down on them after the fact. “What we should be doing is making sure that they’re safe before they go on the market,” argues Dinsmore. “That’s the logical step.”
Indeed, once a specific PFAS is identified as dangerous and regulated, chemicals companies simply come up with molecularly similar variants that perform largely the same function.
This is precisely what happened when chemicals giant DuPont was finally forced to admit defeat in the long-running legal saga damatised in the movie Dark Waters, and withdraw its PFOA product known as C8, most famously used in Teflon. Instead, it devised a group of replacement compounds called GenX. Known as short-chain organofluorine chemical compounds because they contain six or fewer carbon atoms as opposed to C8’s eight, they are thought to be less persistent. DuPont even spun off a new chemicals company called Chemours in 2015 to produce them. GenX circumvented the restrictions on PFOA put in place by the EPA, and went straight to market with very little independent research verifying their safety. However, research since then has shown that these compounds cause many of the same health problems as C8.
For Dinsmore, these findings are hardly surprising: “Because you’re going to the next closest neighbor chemically, molecularly, they’re very, very similar. That’s why they do the same function and they’re easy to replace in industry. But it also means that the toxicity and the persistence is still very similar,” she says.
Dinsmore is alarmed by the piecemeal approach to regulating PFAS that allows them first to be produced, sold and circulated before they are proven, one-by-one, as harmful. She feels strongly it should be the other way around – that all PFAS should be assumed potentially harmful and banned as group, before releasing each compound individually once independently proven as safe.
In the meantime, she is worried that the slow pace of progress in regulation is simply allowing more and more PFAS to bioaccumulate in the environment. “It’s very hard to get out of water treatment works,” says Dinsmore. “Once it’s in the ocean you can’t get rid of it. You can’t get rid of it from air masses. There is a certain amount of [environmental contamination] we cannot get rid of. It’s just too widespread. It’s too mobile. And it’s everywhere.”
“But you have to stop it building … What we really need to do is cut the sources of this.”
Main image courtesy of US Airforce