‘PFAS’ – The Forever Chemicals

Nebojša Ilić (ESR13)

I would like to start this blog article by talking about awareness.

Awareness is easily taken for granted and we are predisposed to think that everyone is equally informed and has the same knowledge as us (scientists). That is however not the case. We live in a time where false information is easily distributed and every person has a responsibility to question the reliability of this information and to try to ensure that it comes from a proven source.

I continuously make an effort to be an environmentally aware person. Especially now, as a part of the NOWELTIES project, am I becoming more and more familiar with the problems we are facing. With many pollutants accumulating in water in small concentrations, I became motivated to read and inform myself as much as possible. And as you read this, I am still reading more into this topic and I learn something new about the adverse effects on the environment and our health every day. Micropollutants are a problem that needs immediate action! Therefore I am doing my part in this battle by, on one side, developing methods for removal of per- and polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS) from water, and from the other side by using every opportunity I have to share knowledge and awareness.

This blog article is another opportunity to contribute to public awareness, and I would therefore like to share a few facts about the aforementioned PFAS.

PFAS are a large group of compounds that are used daily and regularly in the world around us. They have been around in the industry since the 1960s and have been the basis for many technological advancements we are enjoying today.

To further emphasize this, here are a few examples. That jacket that water just seems to run off? It has probably been treated with a form of PFAS. Firefighters also rely on this compound to put out strong fires because the foam that PFAS form blocks oxygen and is resistant to high temperatures. There are of course many other uses: one form of PFAS is used as a pesticide in Latin America, another as a supporting material in Teflon production, third as a treatment layer for the baking paper we use every day in the kitchen (the same type of paper used for microwave popcorn packaging!). There are over 4000 different registered PFAS after all!

Unfortunately, just as they were a basis for many technological advancements, they were also a basis for many malpractices when it comes to environmental protection. The same properties that make them this wonder material for industry also make them incredibly resistant pollutants! That is why they got their famous nickname “The forever chemicals” after all. Moreover, we need to be aware that the negative effects these compounds have on health are still far from fully explored.

Well, how do we deal with pollutants that are super resistant to everything we currently use to treat water? This is what many scientists around the world, me included, are set to find out!

In the meantime, if after reading this text you are wondering how to help, I would say that everything begins and ends with our commitment. For example, when you need to buy a waterproof jacket, you may want to look for an eco-friendly model that does not employ PFAS (usually specified on the label). Or if you feel like popcorn, pop the corn yourself, rather than buying the microwave version!

What about you, do you know something important or interesting regarding the environment? Is it important information that will help protect the world around us? Then share it! It is our responsibility as curious people to find out as much as we can, and it is our duty to share what we know with the people around us.

If you want to find out more about PFAS and what is being done about them, the European Environment Agency website is a good place to start.