PFAs — “forever chemicals” linked with raised risks to health
A recent report published by researchers at Stockholm University warn that it is vitally important that PFA use and emissions are rapidly restricted.
In our previous article PFAs Forever Chemicals Risk we examined the broader role which polyfluoroalkyl or PFAs play in a range of everyday products and specifically a Notre Dame study which looked at the high level of PFAs in certain cosmetics.
Recent research published in Environmental Science and Technology emanates from researchers at Stockholm University who referenced the increased risk of cancer, diabetes, raised cholesterol levels and fertility problems from PFAs and conclude that “it is vitally important that PFA use and emissions are rapidly restricted”.
What are PFAs and why are they linked to adverse health outcomes?
PFAs are complex manufactured chemicals widely used in a range of consumer products. Their primary role in the manufacturing process is to make products water, stain or heat resistant. Examples include waterproofing of clothing, stain resistance or non-stick coating on cookware and in cosmetics to make the product waterproof/durable.
PFA molecules are made up of a chain of linked carbon and fluoride atoms – these do not degrade or naturally break down in the environment leading to the sobriquet “forever chemicals”.
PFAs can accumulate and stay in the human body for a long time. Exposure can arise in a number of ways – usually through ingestion or via the airborne route. Cumulative exposure over time can then lead to symptoms.
The most studied PFAs are PFOAs and PFOs, which have, when tested, caused reproductive, liver, kidney and immunological effects in laboratory animals to include tumours. The most consistent findings, however, relate to increased cholesterol levels.
The Stockholm University research
Published in Environmental Science and Technology, the article “Outside the safe operating space of a new planetary boundary for PFAs”, features research led by Professor Ian Cousins of the Department of Environmental Science. Further to laboratory and field work his team has undertaken over several years - measuring the atmospheric presence of PFAs - the researchers conclude that current PFA levels when measured against a variety of environmental metrics are already too high.
Despite PFA usage being phased out by some manufacturers, they can be found in rainwater and snow in the most remote locations on earth.
Professor Cousins comments:
“Based on the latest US Guidelines for PFOA’s in drinking water, rainwater would be judged unsafe to drink”.
Whilst accepting that in the industrialised world we don’t often drink rainwater, Professor Cousins makes the valid points that
“Many people would expect it to be safe to drink and that it provides much of our drinking supplies”.
Should the UK have concerns?
The Times, in its article “Will the things we use every day make us ill”? (27 September 2022), reports problems emerging in Cambridge earlier this year when a water supply containing PFA levels measured at 400 nanograms per litre – four times the regulatory limit for PFAs. This was removed by Cambridge Water. It reports that the historical use of PFAs in firefighting foams in the nearby Duxford Airfield was believed to be the cause. The article also referenced Professor Crispin, Environmental Chemist at the University of Lancaster, stating that whilst uncertainty remains about their full health impact:
“Scientists have now absolutely established a firm correlation between PFA exposure and human ill health”.
The evidential base linking PFAs to a variety of conditions is growing with each published study. Whilst the true adverse impacts of PFAs may not be realised for several years to come, some parallels with asbestos may be drawn.
Asbestos as a mineral was fiercely resistant to heat, alkaline and acids and very difficult to break down. Its use was ubiquitous in construction during the 1950’s and 1960’s. PFAs are dubbed “forever chemicals” which, due to their chemical properties, are difficult to eradicate safely. Frequently they become recycled as contaminated rainwater.
Parallels may also be drawn with ‘forever chemicals’ given how the developing knowledge of the health risks associated with asbestos exposure occurred over time and with each incremental piece of research. Asbestos saw increasingly restrictive occupational exposure limits as knowledge grew. As the Stockholm University researchers point out, the guidelines as to what constitutes “safe” PFA levels have themselves reduced over time.
Until ongoing research develops a method to eradicate existing PFAs safely, at scale and without the risk of PFAs being recycled as rainwater, consumers may be wise to limit exposure where possible by choosing products which are certified to be “PFA-free”. Several prominent retailers, particularly in the fashion sector, have already committed to this pledge.
Currently, water safety standards in the UK remain advisory and are not legally enforceable. As the evidence base becomes stronger, it seems probable that that too will change.
If you would like further information on the recent study and the ongoing research into PFAs and safety standards, then get in touch with our leading occupational disease experts.