If you have read the news anytime over the last few years, the term ‘forever chemicals’ might be familiar. The media has highlighted their dangers extensively and while that’s a good thing, misconceptions can also arise. To refresh your memory, ‘forever chemicals’ refer to a broad range of chemicals that tend to persist in the environment.
In this context, you might have also come across the term PFAS or ‘Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances.’ These PFAS chemicals are a particularly dangerous type due to their fluorine-carbon bonds.
According to Statista, 16.3 thousand pounds of PFOS chemicals (a subclass of PFAS) were released in 2021 by U.S. facilities. It is easy for people to get worried about their usage, but context is essential. Today, let us explore some of the common myths and incorrect beliefs about these dangerous ‘forever chemicals’.
Why Do Forever Chemicals Have a Bad Reputation?
The very term ‘forever chemicals’ carries an ominous tone. The poor reputation they have can be attributed to the side effects that come with exposure. Firefighters, for instance, have suffered greatly due to the presence of ‘forever chemicals’ in their gear and equipment.
The foam that is used in certain types of fire extinguishers can be highly toxic. Many firefighters have developed cancers due to exposure to PFAS chemicals. In fact, such instances have been common enough to trigger AFFF lawsuit cases. (AFFF refers to ‘Aqueous Film Forming Foam,’ a substance used in fuel fire extinguishers)
According to TorHoerman Law, manufacturers of these AFFF extinguishers include 3M, DuPont, and Chemours. These companies have faced legal action for being aware of the harmful effects, yet continued to manufacture them.
Cancers are devastating not just to the individual but to the family as well. It’s natural that people have come to dread these chemicals.
Now that we have some idea about why these chemicals are controversial, let’s look at three myths about them.
Myth 1: All Forever Chemicals Are Dangerous
It would be incorrect to forget that ‘forever chemicals’ include a wide range of compounds. This means a high degree of variability exists in terms of toxicity, bioavailability, and environmental impact. The potential risks associated with ‘forever chemicals’ often depend on the level and duration of exposure.
Some insulating materials, inorganic compounds, and even certain siloxane compounds have a low environmental impact.
Moreover, regulatory agencies around the world conduct safety assessments and risk evaluations for chemicals within the ‘forever chemicals’ category. Not all chemicals within this category are automatically considered hazardous or subject to strict regulations.
Myth 2. Boiling Water Will Remove PFAS Contamination
Suppose a source of water is contaminated by PFAS chemicals. A common misconception is that boiling water should make it safe. However, this isn’t the case. PFAS compounds are characterized by strong carbon-fluorine (C-F) bonds.
These bonds are highly stable and resistant to degradation at typical boiling temperatures of 100°C or 212°F.
Boiling water only causes the water molecules themselves to evaporate, leaving behind any dissolved or suspended contaminants, including PFAS. The PFAS compounds are not highly volatile, meaning they don’t readily turn into vapor and leave at boiling temperatures. Instead, they tend to remain in the water.
An unintended consequence of this is that by boiling water, you may be increasing the concentration levels. Instead, the two most reliable ways to remove PFAS chemicals are reverse osmosis and granular activated carbon filters.
Myth 3. PFAS Contamination is Limited to Specific Industries
Many people falsely believe that PFAS contamination is only likely when a person is exposed to specific environments or industries. Stay out of chemical production factories, firefighting roles, and wastewater treatment plants, and you are safe, right?
Toxic PFAS chemicals can make their way to different environments and industries in inconspicuous ways. For instance, farmers can be exposed to them due to their presence in biosolids which are used as fertilizers. Similarly, many consumer products contain PFAS chemicals.
These include food packaging material like microwave popcorn bags, Non-stick cookware, and outdoor gear. PFAS isn’t limited to a few areas. It can appear in a number of unexpected places. Thus, always be aware of what you are ingesting or exposing yourself to.
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‘Forever chemicals’ can indeed be dangerous, and their track record of causing cancers isn’t anything to underestimate. Despite awareness of their dangers, they are still used extensively in many industries. At the same time, taking a rational view is also important. Not all ‘forever chemicals’ are as toxic as those in the PFAS category.
Similarly, not falling for misconceptions and myths is critical. ‘Forever chemicals’ need to be addressed carefully. If you are a civilian, take the time to educate yourself on sources of toxic ‘forever chemicals’ near you.
Sadly, some American states continue to suffer from PFAS contamination in their water systems. Michigan and New Jersey are two notable ones. Recently, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) discovered that New Jersey still couldn’t meet new requirements regarding the presence of toxic chemicals.
Hopefully, authorities and those responsible become more adept at handling these chemicals.