Understanding PFAS “The Forever Chemicals”

In recent years, the term PFAS has become increasingly prominent in environmental discussions and in the news media. But what exactly are these substances, where do they come from, and why are they a cause for concern? In this article we will explore the origins and presence of PFAS, debunk common myths, and provide practical advice on managing these chemicals, and how Helia EHS can assist in addressing these challenges.

  1. What Are PFAS and PFOS?

Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are a large group of human-made chemicals that have been used in various industrial applications and consumer products since the 1940s. PFAS are characterized by their strong carbon-fluorine bonds, which make them highly resistant to heat, water, and oil. This resistance is precisely what has made PFAS so popular in manufacturing and industrial processes.

PFOS (Perfluorooctanesulfonic acid) is one of the most widely known and studied members of the PFAS family. Like other PFAS, PFOS is highly persistent in the environment and can accumulate in living organisms, including humans.

Sources of PFAS and PFOS

PFAS are found in a wide array of products and environments, including:

– Non-stick cookware: PFAS are used in the manufacture of non-stick coatings such as Teflon.

– Water-repellent clothing: Many waterproof garments and outdoor gear are treated with PFAS to repel water and stains.

– Food packaging: PFAS are often used in grease-resistant paper products, such as fast-food wrappers and microwave popcorn bags.

– Firefighting foams: Aqueous film-forming foams (AFFFs) used for firefighting, particularly at airports and military bases, may contain high levels of PFAS, however the Metropolitan Fire Brigade (MFB) and the Country Fire Authority (CFA) in Victoria have phased out the use of persistent PFAS-containing firefighting foams across their respective operations.

– Industrial applications: PFAS are used in a variety of industrial processes, including electroplating, textiles, and electronics manufacturing.

Environmental Persistence and Bioaccumulation

One of the most significant concerns about PFAS is their persistence in the environment. These chemicals do not break down easily, leading to widespread contamination in soil, water, and air. Furthermore, PFAS can bioaccumulate, meaning they build up in the tissues of living organisms over time. This bioaccumulation can lead to higher concentrations of PFAS in humans, posing potential health risks.

 

  1. Addressing Common Misinformation

As awareness of PFAS has grown, so too has the spread of misinformation. Here are some of the common myths and the actual facts.

Myth 1: All PFAS Are the Same

Fact: PFAS is a broad category encompassing thousands of different chemicals with varying properties and uses. Not all PFAS have the same level of persistence, toxicity, or bioaccumulation potential. It’s crucial to differentiate between different types of PFAS when assessing risks and regulatory measures.

 

Myth 2: There Are No Health Risks Associated with PFAS Exposure

Fact: Numerous studies have linked PFAS exposure to various health issues, including liver damage, thyroid disease, decreased fertility, high cholesterol, obesity, hormone suppression, and cancer. The extent of health risks depends on the type and concentration of PFAS, duration of exposure, and individual susceptibility.

 

Myth 3: PFAS Are No Longer Used in Consumer Products

Fact: While some PFAS, such as PFOS and PFOA, have been phased out or restricted in many countries, other PFAS are still in use. Manufacturers often replace regulated PFAS with alternative compounds that may still pose environmental and health risks.

 

  1. Managing PFAS: Practical Advice

Given the persistence and potential health risks of PFAS, it’s essential to manage these chemicals effectively. Here are some steps individuals, businesses, and communities can take:

Reducing Exposure

– Identify Sources: Be aware of common sources of PFAS in your daily life, such as non-stick cookware, water-repellent clothing, and food packaging. Opt for alternatives when possible.

– Minimise Use of Products Containing PFAS: Choose products labeled as PFAS-free or those that use safer alternatives.

Environmental Monitoring and Remediation

– Testing: Understanding how to properly sample soil, water, and air to monitor PFAS levels, and when this sampling may be required. This is especially crucial for areas near industrial sites, airports, and military bases. Helia EHS has a team of experts that routinely sample for the presence of PFAS in soil, water and air. These samples are analysed in NATA accredited labs.

– Remediation Technologies: Utilise advanced remediation technologies to remove PFAS from contaminated sites, such as activated carbon adsorption, ion exchange and SAFF® (Surface Active Foam Fractionation) which utilises the natural physiochemistry of PFAS compounds to adhere to fine air bubbles rising through a narrow water column. As the bubbles rise they are exceptionally effective in collecting PFAS compounds which are loosely bound to the water molecules, – Waste Management: Properly manage and dispose of waste containing PFAS to prevent further environmental contamination.

The Role of an Environmental Consultancy

Environmental consultancies such as Helia EHS play a critical role in managing the risks associated with PFAS contamination. Here’s how they can help:

– Expert Assessment: Environmental consultants have the expertise to assess the extent of PFAS contamination in various environments. They use advanced analytical techniques to identify and quantify PFAS levels.

– Risk Evaluation: Consultants evaluate the potential health and environmental risks associated with PFAS exposure. They provide recommendations for mitigating these risks based on scientific evidence.

– Regulatory Compliance: Environmental consultancies help businesses and communities comply with local, national, and international regulations regarding PFAS. They stay up-to-date with evolving legislation and ensure that clients adhere to all necessary guidelines.

– Remediation Strategies: Consultants develop and implement effective remediation strategies to clean up PFAS-contaminated sites. They use a combination of technologies and methods tailored to the specific needs of each site.

– Public Education: Environmental consultancies engage with the public to raise awareness about PFAS. They provide accurate information and guidance on reducing exposure and managing risks.

PFAS  are pervasive environmental pollutants that pose significant challenges due to their persistence and potential health risks. By understanding their origins, addressing misinformation, and implementing effective management strategies, we can mitigate their impact on our health and environment. The team at Helia EHS play an indispensable role in this effort, offering the expertise and solutions needed to tackle PFAS contamination. Through informed action and collaboration, we can protect our communities and ecosystems from any adverse effects.

 

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