When you hear the term ‘PFAS,’ what normally comes to mind? Are you left confused as to what the acronym stands for? If yes, then you’re not alone. The sad reality is that most Americans have no clue what PFAS are. 

A recent survey found that over 45% of the respondents were completely unaware of PFAS. An additional 31% had heard of the term but did not know what it stood for. Only 11% of the total respondents had a clear idea of PFAS and why they’re a matter of concern. 

This alone highlights the need for proper awareness surrounding these chemicals. Short for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, PFAS comprise a group of 15,000 complex chemicals developed around the 1940s. In this article, we will delve deeper into their history, uses, health effects, and more to understand why we only ignore them to our peril. 

Multitudinal Uses for PFAS 

Though PFAS manufacturing started in the 1940s, they were not available for commercial and industrial uses until the 1950s. At the time, the modern firefighting industry was taking shape as fires, along with their extinguishers, were being classified. 

It was discovered that certain PFAS were resistant to water, oil, and grease. These characteristics made them suitable for producing Class B firefighting foam. Due to its low viscosity, the Aqueous Film Forming Foam (AFFF) can douse fires that feed on liquid fuels. 

Besides being an integral part of the firefighting industry, PFAS found a place in consumer products too. They were primarily used for manufacturing stain-resistant garments and upholstery as well as non-stick cookware. For decades, all that the public knew was the effectiveness of these chemicals in the form of the products they were used for. 

Health Risks and a Growing Litigation 

Since the late ’90s and early 2000s, whistleblowers have come forward expressing their concerns regarding PFAS. If anything, the scope of PFAS’ health risks and contamination was being assessed. This is true of every other synthetic chemical, especially those produced in large volumes. 

It didn’t take long to realize that PFAS were capable of wreaking havoc on the environment and the human body. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) laid down the several health risks associated with PFAS, including thyroid disease, heart disease, and increased risk of certain cancers. 

These concerns proved to be a reality when firefighters complained of developing cancer due to regular PFAS exposure. Many filed an AFFF lawsuit in 2017, which was consolidated into a multi-district litigation (MDL) a year later. According to TorHoerman Law, the most common injuries included cancer of the testicles, kidneys, and bladder. 

PFAS manufacturers like 3M and DuPont were accused of hiding the health risks despite being aware. Even municipalities filed a water contamination lawsuit, one-half of which has been settled for $10.3 billion in 2023. PFAS can cause extreme pollution as the EPA already has 180 Superfund sites to deal with. 

At the current rate, remediation efforts can take decades. As per the 2024 AFFF lawsuit update, the court is preparing for Telomere-based lawsuit trials. It includes injuries caused by another AFFF where the PFAS content is 30 to 50% lower. Moreover, personal injury suits will also go to Bellwether trials soon. 

Pervasive Nature of the Chemicals 

We just discussed that PFAS are harmful to the environment and human health. Is this one reason that contemporary societies cannot ignore these chemicals? Yes, but that is not all. What makes PFAS a lot more dangerous is the fact that they can stay indefinitely. 

In other words, PFAS are also known as the ‘forever chemicals’ because they cannot be degraded into simpler compounds easily. The carbon-fluorine bond that these chemicals share is too strong. Scientists and researchers are trying their best to discover concrete methods for PFAS removal. 

Though some experiments have shown positive results, the solutions are still in their nascent stages. Besides the ‘eternal’ nature of PFAS, they are ubiquitous and can practically be found everywhere. Yes, it is possible to find PFAS in tap water, rainwater, consumer products, and whatnot. 

Studies support this as it was found that 50% of US tap water was contaminated with PFAS. The same goes for rainwater as far as remote places like Antarctica. Even commercial food outlets were using packaging lined with a layer of PFAS. 

Furthermore, it was discovered that people consuming high quantities of processed foods are at risk of greater PFAS levels in their bodies. These chemicals have been deemed to be ‘inescapable’ given how pervasive they have become. 

Since the world’s health is at stake, countries are taking major strides in restricting PFAS production. 3M, the primary PFAS manufacturer, has given its word that all production will stop by the end of 2025. 

This is only partially good news because we still need to discover ways for PFAS remediation. Until then, people must limit their exposure to these chemicals by practicing caution while buying consumer, personal care, and food products. 

The firefighting industry needs to replace all AFFF with non-toxic fluorine-free alternatives. Society’s future depends on these drastic measures. 

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