There are a number of pollutants that man has produced in large quantities, such as compounds polyfluoroalkylated and perfluoroalkylated (PFAS, for its acronym in English). These chemical agents, known as ‘forever chemicals’, can be found from textiles, paints, pizza boxes or cleaning products to the fire fighting foam.
They are dangerous for Human health and ecosystems, because its toxicity is persistent, it spreads through the atmosphere and can be found in rainwater and snow in the most remote regions of the planet. Also, if the human body absorbs them through food or water, it accumulates them.
Although it is true that in the last twenty years the values of PFAS in drinking water, surface water and soils have decreased drastically, due to its prohibition and legislation on its use, knowing its high toxicity, a study indicates that the planetary limit of the established levels has been exceeded.
“The general level of knowledge of the human health effects of PFAS exposure is uneven depending on the country or region. It is generally low and more could be done to communicate the problem. We need people to have a level of awareness similar to that of plastic pollution”, tells SINC Ian Cousins, lead author of the work on presence and atmospheric transport of PFAS during the last decade.
Cousins, professor at the Department of Environmental Sciences at Stockholm University (Sweden), together with his team and scientists at the Federal Polytechnic School of Zurich (ETH), have published the results of the laboratory and field research in the journal Environmental Science & Technology.
“There has been a staggering drop in guideline values for PFAS in drinking water. For example, the drinking water guideline value for a well-known PFAS-class substance, perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) in English), which can cause cancerhas decreased by 37.5 million times in the US,” adds Cousins.
Some laws on these compounds do not completely prohibit them, but rather restrict their use and provide exceptions. “It would have to refer to something essential to health and safety, or critical to the functioning of society. For example, protection against biological fluids in medical gowns for professionals working in operating rooms. But even for these essential uses there may be alternatives or innovation should lead to the development of alternatives. Personally, I believe that the essential uses are few, “argues the expert.
PFAS are very persistent, but their continued presence is also due to their properties and natural processes that continually return them to the atmosphere from the environment.
“Under the latest US guidelines on PFOA in drinking water, rainwater around the world would be considered unsafe to drink. Although we don’t often drink rainwater in the industrialized world, many people around the globe expect it to be safe to drink.” and supplies many of our drinking water sources,” says the researcher.
One of the most important natural processes in the PFAS cycle is he transport of seawater to sea air via aerosols, which is another active research area for the Swedish university team.
“Due to the global spread of PFAS, the environment everywhere will exceed environmental quality guidelines designed to protect human health and we will be able to do very little to reduce their contamination. In other words, it makes sense to define a specific planetary limit for PFAS and, as we concluded in the document, this limit has already been exceeded,” says Martin Scheringer, co-author of the study and scientist at the Swiss ETH and RECETOX, from Masaryk University (Czech Republic).
PFAS are a collective name with which the highly fluorinated substances that have a similar chemical structure. All of them are either extremely persistent in the environment or break down into others in this extremely persistent group, hence the nickname ‘forever chemicals’.
PFAS have been associated with a wide range of serious damage to healthsuch as: cancer, learning and behavior problems in children, infertility, pregnancy complications, increased cholesterol, and immune system problems.
“Those who live near pollution hot spots suffer the most, of course, like near factories or military bases or where fire-fighting foams are used. The food and water there is heavily contaminated and those who consume local products are very exposed”, emphasizes the researcher from the Swedish university.
Jane Muncke, CEO of the Food Packaging Forum Foundation in Zurich, Switzerland, who was not involved in the work, says: “It can’t be that a few benefit financially, while polluting the drinking water of millions of others. people and cause serious health problems The enormous amounts it will cost to reduce PFAS in drinking water to safe levels, based on current scientific knowledge, must be paid by the industry that produces and uses these toxic chemicals. The time to act is now”.
Cousins is also in favor of this idea, but is aware that current legislation does not make it easily possible. “The ‘polluter pays’ principle means that the users of the chemicals are responsible, not the manufacturer. For example, in the case of PFAS contamination of fire-fighting foams, defense departments are often responsible and, ultimately, the one who pays is the taxpayer,” he concludes.