In the past century, great progress has been made to revolutionize the way we live life. After all, hundreds of vital and durable products used in every household today did not exist back then. The issue is that such longevity often comes at a price.
It is equally true that never before was the world so contaminated with different forms of chemicals and synthetic products. Being artificial, some of them are super dangerous simply because they have the potential of being indestructible.
One widely-known example is that of plastic, which can remain without decomposition for years down the line. Another group of chemicals notorious for being harmful to life and the environment is per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances or PFAS.
Their chemistry was first discovered in the 1930s, but it was not until the 1950s that they were widely used. Presently, the pleas surrounding a total ban on PFAS production have reached a feverish pitch.
In this article, we will discuss the PFAS ban in detail as well as how effective it might be.
The Need of the Hour to Stop PFAS Production
The most direct use of PFAS is in the manufacture of Class B firefighting foam – Aqueous Film Forming Foam (AFFF). This fire suppressant is used to extinguish fires that break out due to liquids like jet fuel.
For decades, firefighters have been using this foam for its impressive low viscosity. This enables it to spread easily and cover (even) large grounds of liquid-fuel fire. Unfortunately, study after study has revealed that PFAS are harmful to health and the environment.
The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has also given its verdict. The agency calls the most widely studied PFAS – Perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) – a probable human carcinogenic. This was further confirmed when firefighters filed an AFFF foam lawsuit against the chemicals’ manufacturers due to injuries like kidney, bladder, and testicular cancers.
In 2023 itself, a nested case-control study further solidified proof that PFAS is strongly linked with testicular cancer. However, TorHoerman Law states that the AFFF lawsuit comprises two categories – personal injury lawsuits filed by firefighters and water contamination lawsuits filed by local municipalities.
A recent progression in the lawsuit has promised settlements for all water contamination cases. The biggest defendant, 3M, has offered to pay $10.3 billion over 13 years for PFAS detection, management, and removal.
Additionally, 3M has promised to totally stop producing PFAS by the end of 2025. Now, this is also the year when countries worldwide have planned a total PFAS ban.
It is unsustainable to allow further production given the health and environmental repercussions. Individual countries, states, and cities already have some form of partial PFAS ban.
For instance – many US states have made it mandatory that AFFF use be limited to emergencies. Serious efforts are already in place to substitute AFFFs with non-PFAS variants. It is indeed true that scientists are finding this challenging in light of the exclusive properties of the chemicals.
PFAS coating was even found on firefighter gear to make it oil and water-resistant. It is currently difficult to say if a replacement will be found soon. Nonetheless, the ban is a ray of hope that the future will be clean and safe for firefighters and municipalities.
The Problem: PFAS Not Easy to Escape
Amid all hopes, there’s a huge problem – PFAS may not be as easy to escape as some imagine. These chemicals are found in one way or another in numerous daily-use products. This includes shampoos, bicycle lubricants, dental floss, and more.
In some cases, they are also used to prepare waterproof food packaging. This means they are directly transferred into the food itself. Scientists have also discovered that half of US tap water is already contaminated with varying levels of PFAS.
If that were all, one could hope for a solid remediation plan. But these chemicals are not only found practically everywhere, they are also difficult to get rid of.
Capable of staying within the soil or human body indefinitely, science deems them to be ‘forever chemicals.’ For instance – the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has compiled a list of 180 Superfund sites for priority cleaning due to PFAS contamination.
Some of these sites were added nearly four decades ago, and are still awaiting cleanup. If that weren’t enough, new studies have further brought to light that rainwater across the world has PFAS in it. This even includes largely secluded spots like Antarctica.
This is why a Notre Dame researcher and professor by the name of Graham Peaslee believes that a possible legacy for the upcoming generations would be PFAS in surface water and soil. Even so, a remedy must be found since even small quantities of these chemicals are highly toxic.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), PFAS damage extends beyond different types of cancers. It includes increased levels of cholesterol, liver injuries, pre-eclampsia risk in pregnant women, and reduction in infant birth weight.
The Struggle Regarding Cleanup and Remediation
With 180 sites still pending on the EPA’s PFAS cleanup list, the agency is under immense pressure to accelerate remediation efforts. It has even published a key actions report to restore scientific integrity and disclose efforts underway for PFAS management.
Besides funding and rules to report PFAS detection, the EPA added five new PFAS to the list in 2022. If these five are detected in the soil or water bodies, the agency is to be notified for immediate response.
Furthermore, new Federal (proposed) rules require all companies to reveal whether their products contain PFAS. These products would include cosmetic items, food additives, pesticides, drugs, and more. The aim is to record the pervasiveness of the chemicals before relevant remediation measures can be implemented.
The problem with the proposed rules is that complying with them may cost up to $1 billion. This is especially true of semiconductor and chemical industries. Environmental activists believe that such measures would be futile since PFAS is a class of over 12,000 chemicals.
Cataloging each of them across different products is a next-to-impossible task. Not to mention the cleanup budget is nowhere close to the Pentagon’s estimate.
It expressed its concerns regarding PFAS cleanup fund shortages early this year. The estimated budget for remediation stood at $31 billion, and this was only for all military bases (active or former).
However, even this figure falls short as an additional request of $1.5 billion has been made for the Fiscal 2024 Budget. That’s a 7% increase over what was requested in the Fiscal 2023 Budget.
The Department of Defense (DoD) is accused of allocating fewer resources towards PFAS cleanup now than it did in the past. At this rate, it can take decades (probably 50 years or more) before the fruits of EPA’s labors are visible.
While there are roadblocks and concerns associated with the PFAS ban and remediation, all hope is not lost. The New York Times published an article on a recent PFAS destruction technique discovered by scientists.
The good news is that researchers were able to break apart PFAS molecules using two inexpensive compounds. Shira Joudan, an environmental chemist from York University, was shocked at this discovery. It is believed that this finding will play a key role in future PFAS remediation.
All we can do now is hope this technique works so that the next generation will not have to live with a ghastly legacy.