Prof Talk | Elusive PFAS are everywhere

They are found almost everywhere in the Dutch subsoil and are currently paralyzing the construction industry by necessitating stricter regulations: PFAS, the ‘wonder’ molecules now causing concern. A great many everyday products contain these water- and grease-repellent substances. Professor of Physical Chemistry Remco Tuinier calls on consumers to be more aware of what they are buying and advocates a product label that clarifies their environmental impact.

illustration Brigit Span / Shutterstock

PFAS or poly- and perfluoroalkyl substances. Not only are they in the coating on your sports jacket, your shoes, and in fire-fighting foam, they are also found in furniture, baking paper, the inside of pizza boxes and body lotion. This considerable group, comprising some six thousand substances developed since the 1960s, has hugely convenient properties for all kinds of products we use every day; they are water- grease, and dirt-repellent and, what's more, capable of withstanding high temperatures. But evidence is mounting that even in low concentrations PFAS are toxic to people and the environment. How can we get these ubiquitous substances out of the environment in which we live, and what can we ourselves do to minimize our health risks?

Forever chemicals

“The problem with this group of substances is that they are not biodegradable, because they contain fluorocarbons,” explains TU/e professor Remco Tuinier (Laboratory of Physical Chemistry, Department of Chemical Engineering and Chemistry). “They number among the most stable molecules and their nickname 'forever chemicals' is well-deserved. This means that whatever you put into the water or ground, it will stay there. The same applies to the human body; increasing amounts of PFOA and PFOS - two members of the PFAS family that may be carcinogenic - are being found in our blood. As they are not being broken down, these substances are accumulating gradually in our food and in our bodies, which means in fact that we are slowly poisoning ourselves.”

For the past twenty years, toxicologists have been warning of the risks posed by PFAS, but it was only in the wake of the environmental scandal involving Teflon manufacturer Chemours and the dumping without permit of the PFAS substances PFOA and GenX that more research on potential risks started to be done. The Dutch government introduced its first ever environment norm on the allowable amount of PFAS in the subsoil this past summer.

According to Tuinier, a critical look at subsoil levels is entirely warranted, but the present norm is nonetheless extreme. “The government's policy can easily be dubbed 'inconsistent'. For example, only this past May Minister Van Nieuwenhuizen granted Chemours permission to discharge significant amounts of PFAS into the River Merwede; a couple of months later State Secretary Van Veldhoven introduces a norm that is thirty times lower than RIVM recommendations. Thorough research on the risks is now very much needed so that the correct norm can be established. On the other hand, this cabinet's firm tackling of the PFAS problem is impressive; these are chemicals designated as being a 'substance of very high concern'. You can keep on adjusting norms, but at some point there is nothing left to adjust and we have passed the point of no return.”

Although talk of a PFAS crisis is every increasing, Tuinier feels positive. “I am certainly hopeful that a process will get underway in which people will look very critically at how industry treats the environment. The government has an important role to play in this; first of all we must ensure that these substances no longer get into our environment. And because we are a densely populated country with a great deal of industry, it is also important that we develop technologies capable of addressing the present problems. Think of soil remediation (cleaning) methods - a highly complex matter because we are dealing with water-repellent substances. Or the development of membranes for water purification, a successful technology that is emerging quickly. Innovation is our strength.”

Consumers take note

In our role as consumers, we need to pay more attention to what we buy. Don't buy products with suspicious substances and be critical about what you put in your shopping basket, Tuinier urges. “In today's world I find the rise of discount stores irresponsible, and some top-down regulation wouldn't go amiss. At the same time, make it easier for the consumer to choose a sustainable alternative. I've been saying for years that we need a label revealing the environmental impact of making a product, that helps the buyer who may not be all that clued up. I mean, if you saw a ‘bad’ label, would you still pick that item off the shelf?”

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