What do drinking water, polar bears, and breast milk have in common?
It might sound like the start of a bad joke, but it’s not - they all contain ‘forever chemicals.’
These persistent human-made substances - also known as per-and polyfluorinated alkyl substances, or PFAs - do not break down in the environment.
The chemicals have long been valued for their non-stick properties. But an increasing body of research is showing just how damaging they can be to the human body.
So just how bad is the problem - and what can we do about it?
Where are forever chemicals found and what are the health risks?
There are more than 4,700 forever chemicals on the market. They’re non-stick and stain-repellent - making them common ingredients in cookware, clothing, fire-fighting foam, electronics, cosmetics, and industrial manufacturing processes.
The chemicals contain chains of linked carbon and fluorine atoms, one of the strongest bonds there is.
The unbreakable bond is what makes them so popular, explains Dr Clare Cavers, senior project manager at environmental charity Fidra.
“The strength of that carbon bond makes them really good at what they do, acting as an oil or water repellent, or as a surfactant (a substance like a detergent that makes a liquid easier to spread),” she says.
“But [the bond] also means they persist in nature - they accumulate.
“And they have really strong impacts on human cells and on wildlife.”
The chemicals have been linked to a massive array of health issues. These include, but are not limited to, high cholesterol, ulcerative colitis, pregnancy-induced hypertension, thyroid disease, cancer, and decreased response to vaccines.
What can we do about forever chemicals?
The list of health problems caused by forever chemicals is long - but the list of places they are found is longer.
They’re everywhere: studies have discovered them in blood, fish, plants, breast milk, drinking water, soil, and embryos - and that’s just the tip of the iceberg (icebergs, incidentally, are also full of PFAS).
Thankfully, scientists are working hard on ways to destroy forever chemicals, with multiple novel new approaches in development.
Scientific solutions to forever chemicals
Hydrogen and UV light force chemicals to fall apart
In December 2022, University of California researchers used hydrogen and UV light to destroy two kinds of toxic PFAS chemicals in tap water.
The ‘promising’ technology obliterates 95 per cent of the chemicals in less than an hour.
When a contaminated source is infused with hydrogen, the water releases electrons weakening the tight molecular bonds that bind PFAS.
Pulses of high-energy UV light accelerate this reaction, causing the stubborn chemicals to break down.
It’s a “one-two punch,” UCR researchers claim.
Magnets ‘pull’ PFAS from water
Australian scientists have used magnets to pull the chemicals directly from water.
University of Queensland researchers covered PFAS with a magnetic solution made from fluorinated polymer sorbent. The solution coats the forever chemicals, which are then extracted using a magnet.
In tests with small samples of PFAS-laden water, the team found that the technique could remove over 95 per cent of most PFAS molecules, including over 99 per cent of GenX – a particularly toxic substance – within 30 seconds.
“Because our process does not need electricity, it can be used in remote and off-grid communities,” said Dr Cheng Zhang, co-author of the study.
Super-compressed water corrodes chemicals
Engineers at the University of Washington have used ‘supercritical water’ to destroy the chemicals.
When water is heated, it turns into gas. But if you apply a great deal of pressure to this superheated water, it becomes a plasma-like substance - neither liquid nor gas.
In the plasma, the water molecules act in a new way, bouncing around aggressively. This corrodes the forever chemicals.
Scientists first developed this method to destroy chemical warfare agents - but they hope it could also be used to destroy forever chemicals in industrial waste.
Which countries have the strictest regulatory requirements?
It’s “interesting” to see these scientific developments unfold, says Cavers.
But there is a simpler, and more effective solution: stop producing the substances altogether.
“We need to turn off the tap. Otherwise, it’s like we are bailing out the sinking boat while someone is pouring more water in,” she explains.
Around the world, governments are coming under increasing pressure to regulate PFAS.
The US Environmental Protection Agency recently advised that drinking water should not contain PFAS at a concentration higher than 0.2 parts per trillion. This is a decrease of more than a thousandfold on previous guidelines, which set a limit of 70 parts per trillion.
In October 2022, 46 European civil society called on the European Commission to phase out all PFAS use in consumer products (e.g., food packaging, cosmetics, clothing) by 2025 and all PFAS production and use by 2030.
Germany, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden and Denmark - all of which have strong internal rules on PFAS - have jointly submitted a proposal to have the toxic substances restricted throughout the EU. It is due to be published later this month.
Individual jurisdictions are bringing in positive developments.
“California, for example, has banned the use of PFAS in textiles within the next two years,” Cavers says.
“In Denmark, they’ve been banned from food packaging. So some of these restrictions can be brought in really quickly.”
Can litigation help cut forever chemicals from our lives?
Phasing out forever chemicals is a moral imperative. But for chemical companies, it might also be a financial one.
As awareness around the potential health risks of PFAS grows, ordinary citizens and governments are bringing lawsuits against manufacturers.
Last year, 47 asset managers - responsible for €7.7 trillion in investments - wrote to more than 50 companies urging them to phase out the chemicals.
“We encourage you to lead, not be led, by phasing out and substituting these chemicals,” their letter reads.
The government of California is suing 18 chemical manufacturers for knowingly marketing toxic chemicals.
“It’s financially smart for companies to stay a step ahead of litigation and regulations. Why not make the changes before it becomes law?” Cavers says.
“The change is coming. Not quickly enough, but it is coming.”