In this article the chemical experts at Water Treatment Services help to explain the background to, and what we currently know about the class of chemicals popularly known as forever chemicals, and how advances in water analysis techniques now allow us to perform testing for PFAS in drinking water, surface water and groundwater.
Why we all need to know about forever chemicals
Human history is filled with examples of creating or using things that were initially thought to be safe, only to later find they are anything but. Think about asbestos used as snow, for example – something that happened for around 20 years and was seen in some classic Hollywood movies. The next time you watch The Wizard of Oz and see that scene of Dorothy falling asleep among snow-covered flowers… that’s asbestos.
Now it looks as if we can include forever chemicals in that same category. To begin with, these chemicals were seen to have several advantages, not least their waterproof nature and the fact they were fire retardant. Indeed, they came into being in the 1930s, not long before cast and crew were hard at work making the classic that would become The Wizard of Oz.
But in recent years, we have begun to realise that these chemicals could end up being a significant danger to humans and animals alike – and to the world we live in. And they’re almost everywhere we look, too. The more you learn about them, the more you realise they are extremely concerning for the world around us and for ourselves.
What are forever chemicals?
If you start researching forever chemicals, you’ll soon come across the letters PFAS. These stand for poly- and perfluoroalkyl substances. PFAS cover thousands of substances developed by humans – over 4,700 of them at the last count. They’re used in various industries and are superb under various conditions. Aside from the waterproof and fire-retardant properties already mentioned, they also perform well in repelling stains, hence their use in carpets and similar scenarios.
It probably won’t surprise you to learn that you almost certainly have some PFAS in your home, either. Their properties make them perfect to use in non-stick frying pans and bakeware. Any sort of food packaging that is designed to resist grease is likely to contain PFAS as well. You might even be wearing clothes that contain these chemicals.
In fact, there is unlikely to be a single room in your home or place of work that doesn’t contain examples of items that include PFAS somewhere. These forever chemicals certainly have many advantages, hence their popularity, but they’re also known for having far darker properties.
How safe are forever chemicals or PFAS?
Overall, the stability of PFAS are notable and indeed this is part of the issue. They don’t generally react with other chemicals, they’re hard to break down, and can therefore remain in the environment for long periods of time. As you might imagine, with over 4,700 of them available, very few have been studied to any real extent. However, two PFAS have either been strictly limited in their use or banned outright. These are PFOS and PFOA. Furthermore, those that have been extensively studied have been found to be at least moderately toxic – if not worse. This is according to a briefing published in 2019 (and updated this year) by the European Environment Agency (EEA).
Furthermore, while these forever chemicals pose clear risks, they can do so at incredibly low levels. In many other cases where something enters a water supply, for example, it doesn’t become harmful until it reaches significant levels. Therefore, keeping it at levels below that threshold doesn’t cause any real concern.
PFAS cover thousands of substances developed by humans – with over 4,700 of them at the last count.
That’s not the case with PFAS. According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, PFAS can cause harm even when they’re present at incredibly low levels. Studies are also beginning to consider the possible effects of PFAS across an individual’s life, rather than over a much shorter period. These studies point to the chance of potential health issues even with minimal exposure to PFAS. The accumulative nature of PFAS could pose a long-term risk when considering certain health conditions that may potentially have links to PFAS.
Can we just avoid PFAS?
Avoiding the use of PFAS would seem to be the ideal answer, but it is far from easy to do. Indeed, given what we already know – and what we are about to tell you – it may just prove impossible.
Indeed, studies involving the testing for forever chemicals have shown that PFAS are present in tap water in England and Wales. One study conducted by the BBC found that while levels of PFAS were within ‘safe’ levels as set by the Drinking Water Inspectorate in England and Wales, they were above the safety levels currently in force in Europe. The current level as determined by the Drinking Water Inspectorate is 100ng/l – nanograms per litre – significantly higher than that seen in the EU.
Many experts in PFAS say the tolerable level in England and Wales should be far below the current level. Research is beginning to suggest that health concerns could be seen among those with exposure to PFAS that ranks in single figures. This is far below the 100ng/l maximum before steps must be taken to combat those levels.
And this is ‘just’ in drinking water, and there is a similar situation happening all over the world. PFAS are also present in soil, and over time, the levels present in soil, water, and the world in general will only rise. Even more worryingly, PFAS do the same in the body – entering and staying there, with increasingly high levels seen over time.
Some foodstuffs are also more likely to have PFAS present than others. Fish, meat, and grains are typical examples. However, PFAS can also enter your life in more unusual ways. Many makeup products contain PFAS, for example. They’re also in many plastics, but can make their way into other products as well.
How could PFAS affect human health?
As with all other ongoing research into PFAS and their effects on the world around us, we are still learning more to give us the bigger picture. However, studies into the potential health effects of PFAS suggest that they may lead to an increased risk of certain health conditions where high levels are present. Such health conditions include thyroid issues and an increased risk of certain cancers, including testicular cancer, liver cancer, and kidney cancer.
Is there a link between PFAS and high blood pressure?
There have also been studies looking at potential links between high levels of PFAS and individuals with high blood pressure. One notable study examined blood samples taken from over 1,000 women annually between 1999 and 2017. None of the participants originally had high blood pressure in 1999. However, those whose blood samples had higher PFAS levels were seen to have a higher risk of high blood pressure compared to those with lower PFAS levels.
On a positive note, improvements have already been made
In some cases, a specific PFAS has been banned, only to be replaced by a closely related PFAS that acts in a similar manner. The good news is that while there is still lots of work to be done to change the situation regarding PFAS, there have already been positive changes among humans. Studies have seen a notable drop in the levels in humans, while levels in the environment have stalled.
If you’re interested in testing for PFAS, get in touch
We have just begun to conduct testing for PFAS in drinking water, surface water and groundwater, so if this is something that concerns you and you would like to request testing, please get in touch for further information.
There is much still to learn and discover about PFAS and their presence in our environment and indeed within ourselves and our lives, but the more we understand, the better the position we are in. Proactive testing for these forever chemicals can become part of a more positive approach to handling the PFAS in the world around us.
Expert PFAS testing solutions
Water Treatment Services offer a comprehensive range of specialist laboratory analysis solutions including testing for PFAS in drinking water, surface water and groundwater. Our experts can provide advice and support to help you identify the presence of a range of common PFAS.
With offices in London serving the South and South East England, Manchester (North West), Birmingham (Midlands), Bristol (South East England and Wales), Leeds (North and North East) and Glasgow (Scotland), supported by regional teams of specially trained technicians, in-field specialists and consultants we can offer professional, cost effective laboratory analysis solutions across the whole of the UK and internationally.
Contact us today to learn how our expert environmental analysis solutions can help you.