The chemical bonds of PFAS substances are virtually indestructible. That makes their complete disposal hard, if not impossible. Meanwhile, their usefulness to industry makes them hard to give up. This is a growing problem, because PFAS are associated with serious health issues. In the fourth of this five-part “Green Room” series on PFAS, we look at the challenges and opportunities inherent in preventing further spread of PFAS chemicals.
David Fair (DF): Welcome to The Green Room and the fourth in our five-part Series on Per- and Polyflouroalkyl substances, or PFAS for short. Over the past 50-plus years, chemists have developed thousands of them for use in multitudes of products. One of the qualities that makes them so useful is their supreme durability. That comes with a significant downside: They are not biodegradable, so these “forever chemicals” have become ubiquitous in our environment. In this segment of “The Green Room,” Barbara Lucas asks: Can we prevent the spread of the PFAS reach by either disposing of them once manufactured, or, by not making them in the first place?
“It’s in raingear, cookware, carpets, fire foam…”
Barbara Lucas (BL): I’m watching a video from the Toxics Action Center, at ToxicsAction.org.
“…in the drinking water of at least 6 million people, the ice caps, and more likely than not, it’s in your blood.”
BL: Yes, PFAS chemicals are spreading globally. What can we do about it? Luckily, PFAS sticks to activated carbon. That’s what’s used at Ann Arbor’s water treatment plant to remove PFAS from our drinking water. Activated carbon is also used in reverse osmosis home filters. But what happens when the carbon becomes clogged with PFAS? Here’s Dr. Rick Rediske, of Grand Valley State University. He served as scientific advisor for the citizen group that uncovered the extensive PFAS contamination in Rockford.
Rick Rediske: Generally a lot of the home water filters, you throw the cartridges in the trash, so they go to a landfill. And that would eventually come out in the leachate, so that's not a good idea.
BL: He says a better strategy is to recycle the spent carbon, after stripping off the PFAS. This is what happens with the carbon that filters drinking water at Ann Arbor’s water treatment plant.
Rediske: The carbon is regenerated so it has to be sent back to the manufacturer. It's reactivated by heat.
BL: What I want to know is, what happens to the PFAS they get off of the carbon.
Rediske: I think they will try to burn off the PFAS materials and then capture them in the air emissions.
BL: Some studies say these “forever chemicals” can be completely destroyed by very high heat. Other studies say, not so. Here’s Dr. Rebecca Meuninck, Deputy Director of the Ann Arbor-based Ecology Center.
Rebecca Meuninck: PFAS chemicals don’t break down entirely through incineration processes. And so then you have the smokestack that would have the byproducts after incineration, and that would deposit again on soil.
BL: …Potentially making their way into our food, then into our bodies, from there into our sewage sludge, which is often applied to crops, where it can be taken up by plants. Thus the “PFAS cycle” goes round and round. If we can’t make them go away, why don’t we quit making them in the first place? Here’s Robert Delaney, who sounded the alarm in 2012 after submitting his extensive PFAS study to the State of Michigan. (By the way, although he’s an environmental specialist with the State of Michigan, he spoke to me as a private citizen, on his own behalf.)
Robert Delaney: The problem is that these chemicals are really hard to replace. The chemistry is really, really unique, and it doesn't occur in nature, and they're all manmade. And so replacing that chemistry is very difficult. And so what happens often is that companies substitute with other per- and polyfluorinated compounds, to get the same qualities that they had in the original perfluorinated compounds.
BL: He says chemicals in the PFAS family differ by the length of their chemical structure, and are divided into “short chain” and “long chain.” U.S. manufacturers voluntarily phased out use of “long-chain” PFOA and PFOS, but replaced them with “short chain” alternatives. Critics call this the “PFAS hamster wheel.” Dr. Meuninck says because short-chain PFAS are highly soluble, they may impact our food system even more than what they replaced.
Meuninck: The short chain chemicals in particular are of concern with plants. They can move more rapidly and easily into the plant structure than the longer chain chemicals.
BL: Minnesota-based company 3M produces PFAS chemicals. According to their website, these substances are indispensible to multitudes of products that we just can’t do without. They say PFAS are, quote: “critical to the manufacture of electronic devices such as cell phones, tablets and semi-conductors. They are also used to help prevent infections in products like surgical gowns and drapes. Commercial aircraft and low-emissions vehicles also rely on PFAS technology.” I call Dr. Thomas Bruton, senior scientist at the Green Science Policy Institute.
BL: Do you have a sense that we could live without PFAS chemicals?
Bruton: I think we have to consider what our essential uses of PFAS. There may be some, like those examples, that truly are essential to modern life, like certain medical devices or high tech applications. But at the same time there are a lot of uses that aren't essential, like many of the uses of PFAS in apparel.
BL: He says numerous companies are working towards “PFAS-free” product lines. His Green Science Policy Institute is compiling a growing list of them, found at PFAScentral.org. But looking at the big picture, PFAS are far from the only chemicals of concern in modern products. There’s BPA, fire retardants, phalates, 1-4 dioxane, to name just a few. Here’s Bob Delaney.
Delaney: One of the things I try to say to people is that PFAS is the poster child for the things that have gone wrong. And that you know, right now we're seeing this. And I always ask this question: How did we get to this point?
One opinion on this is offered up by Annie Leonard, in her animated documentary, “The Story of Stuff.”
Clip from Story of Stuff video: “The average U.S. person now consumes twice as much as they did 50 years ago…”
BL: And many of these products can be toxic. She says currently, the companies that make them don’t pay for the human and environmental health damage created by their products.
“The goal here is to keep the prices down, keep the people buying and the inventory moving.”
BL: I meet with Leonard, and simply put:
Annie Leonard: We use too much stuff, and we use too toxic stuff.
BL: I think of the new raincoat I bought recently. I already had two raincoats, which were perfectly serviceable. But they were far from new, and I thought I needed something more up-to-date. Leonard is making me ask myself: Did I really have to have another raincoat, considering its water repellence is most likely due to PFAS?
Leonard: What we really need to do is slow down, get off the consumer treadmill. I’m not opposed to consumption…
BL: She says of course people should buy things they really need. But those products should be formulated to be safe, in the first place.
Leonard: It's at the design and the production angle where we have the most leverage. Once the stuff is made, especially when it's a hazardous chemical, there really is nothing we can do with it that is both safe and just.
BL: Some feel we definitely can create safe products. Dr. Nick Kingsley is Associate Professor in the Green Chemistry program at the University of Michigan’s Flint campus.
Nick Kingsley: Chemists are one of the few, if not the only people in the world, who truly make new things that never existed before in the universe. And they do it on a daily basis. We have a responsibility to make sure that those things that we make aren't harming the people that we make for them to use.
BL: He feels that should be the norm for chemistry education—not a specialized program.
Kingsley: That is the overall dream: that Green Chemistry doesn't exist in 20 years, 30 years. It's just chemistry, and this is the way that we do things.
BL: In “The Green Room,” I’m Barbara Lucas, 89 One, WEMU News.
DF: To eliminate, or dramatically reduce, PFAS in our material world, we’ll need major change during all phases of the PFAS cycle —from product formulation, to consumption, to disposal. Coming up in the fifth and final part of our series, we'll dive into the policies and politics of PFAS.
"Michigan's Contaminant Induced Human Health Crisis: Addressing Michigan's Future by Facing the Challenge of the Evolving Nature of Environmental Contamination," Richard DeGrandchamp and Robert Delaney, 2012.
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