Time for NZ to act on ‘forever chemicals’

Opinion: There's another public health emergency and it revolves around 'forever chemicals' found in many things commonly used in everyday life, writes Lokesh Padhye.

A well-used cooking utensil in many kitchens, but some non-stick pans harbour 'forever chemicals' that are causing concern. Photo: iStock

For the past few weeks, everyone's attention was on COP26, and rightly so, as we are dealing with a climate emergency where collective global efforts are critical to confront the crisis.

However, there is another contemporary environmental and public health issue that requires global coordination and immediate action, and that is environmental pollution due to chemical contamination.

If you have been following global news lately, the acronym PFAS has featured extensively in headlines and on the front pages of leading newspapers. The chemicals that come within this group even made an appearance on late-night shows in the US. That should tell you the topic is serious when primetime TV shares its airwaves for organic chemistry. There is even a Hollywood film (Dark Waters) made about these chemicals, based on the true story and depicting the consequences of PFAS pollution.

Indeed, PFAS pollution has been termed as a "public health emergency" by various non-profit advocacy organisations.

What is PFAS?

PFAS stands for 'Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances'. I can hear the big yawn but bear with me; we will stick with PFAS from now on. There have been more than 4,000 of these chemicals manufactured since the 1930s for use in various industries because of their ability to resist heat and repel grease, water, and oil. Industrial love for these chemicals is partly due to the bond between carbon and fluorine, which is one of the strongest in nature, making the compounds last a very long time and giving them some of the desired properties. In fact, many of these compounds persist in the environment for decades after their release and are difficult to break down, which explains their "forever chemicals" moniker.

Where is PFAS?

These manmade chemicals are omnipresent in our modern lives, including, but not limited to, nonstick pans, water-repellant fabrics, dental floss, fast food wrappers, microwave popcorn bags, stain-resistant fabric coatings, cleaning products, cosmetics, paints, and many household items, including carpets and furniture. So it is evident that all of us have been exposed to PFAS in one way or another. In fact, one of the leading analytical chemists from a major commercial laboratory in the US told me that in his 14 years of experience testing human blood, he has "never witnessed a non-detect" for PFAS. That is scary. However, the scarier part is that PFAS is also detected in other human body fluids, including amniotic fluid and breast milk. In fact, a recent survey in the US found PFAS in all human breast milk samples tested and sometimes at a level up to 2,000 times higher than the levels advocated for safe drinking water.

Why should we bother?

PFAS exposure wouldn't have been an issue if not for their adverse impact on nearly every major organ of the human body. There exists substantial evidence in the literature linking PFAS exposure to adverse impacts on the liver, kidneys, thyroid, cholesterol levels, fertility and birth weights of newborns. At higher exposure, PFAS are also linked with a higher risk of testicular and kidney cancers. Recent studies also suggest that exposure to PFAS might suppress the immune systems of young children, potentially making vaccines, such as those for Covid-19, less effective. In fact, a recently published paper from Harvard suggested that higher PFAS levels in the blood are associated with increased severity of Covid-19 infections.

What is being done around the world and in New Zealand?

To answer the second part first, not much. Although some regulatory guidelines exist here on the use and import of a subset of compounds, there is no existing holistic approach to managing PFAS risk to the environment and public health. But there is a lot of movement in that direction in Europe and US. For example, the US Environmental Protection Agency recently announced "PFAS Strategic Roadmap", a three-year strategy to restrict human exposure to these toxic chemicals by accelerating the cleanup of contaminated sites, increasing investment in PFAS research, and holding accountable both manufacturers and polluters. There is a growing movement in these parts of the world to make industries explicitly reveal PFAS use in their products for the consumer's benefit.

Why should we worry about PFAS in New Zealand?

Although we may not have PFAS manufacturing industries, unlike some parts of the world, New Zealand imports products containing PFAS, which is a significant exposure pathway of PFAS for humans and the environment. Unfortunately, there is not much research conducted here to study the occurrence of PFAS in our air, waters and blood. Our research on PFAS through preliminary monitoring studies indicated that PFAS is present in the New Zealand environment, with a similar detection pattern in our waters. That should raise sufficient alarm bells and raise awareness of these chemicals within our population. It is important that the general population is made aware of the risks of using certain products, such as nonstick pans, water-or-stain-resistant clothes, synthetic carpets, etc., for them to make an informed choice.

The best approach to mitigate the PFAS issue is to stop manufacturing and using these compounds altogether, but just like climate change, even if we stop making and using products containing these chemicals, the PFAS problem won't go away for several decades as PFAS that is already present in the environment is difficult to degrade.

Again, just like climate change, the best time to act on it was a few decades ago, and the second-best time is now.

Dr Lokesh Padhye is a senior lecturer in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering in the Faculty of Engineering.

This article reflects the opinion of the author and not necessarily the views of the University of Auckland.

Used with permission from Newsroom Time for NZ to act on ‘forever chemicals’

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