The film Dark Waters has highlighted the danger to us, our wildlife and environment of a freely-used group of persistent substances that large chemical companies are merrily getting away with using.
It’s highly unlikely that you will not have an item in your household containing a ‘forever chemical’; and you probably also have it in your blood.
Rob Bilott, the tenacious lawyer depicted in the film who battled DuPont in court for 20 years for poisoning 70,000 people in West Virginia with one of these chemicals, described the danger in the Guardian as a “ticking time-bomb”. A threat even greater than Covid-19, “of a scope and scale without precedent in human history.”
Heather McFarlane, project manager at Scottish charity Fidra, spoke with EHN Extra's Katie Coyne on the work it has been doing to raise awareness and take action on forever chemicals
What are PFAS and is it true they have been found in the Arctic?
PFAS, short for perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, is a group of 4,700 chemicals, maybe more, offering stain, water and grease resistance and found in a huge variety of everyday products including non-stick pans, furniture, dental floss, food packaging, clothing, carpets and electronics.
They are made from a chain of carbon fluorine bonds, which are among the strongest bonds there are, making them incredibly stable and useful chemicals. But this is a double-edged sword because they can last thousands of years: they persist and build up in the environment, which is why they are also referred to as ‘forever chemicals’.
They travel long distances through waterways and the atmosphere and have even been found in remote places like the Arctic. Obviously, we're moving PFAS products around the world so they are produced in one place, but might get used in another. And because PFAS can leak out both in production and when you're actually using it, and then when you throw it away, there's lots of opportunity for it to get out.
How dangerous are these chemicals?
They have been found to harm the immune systems of various species including otters, and the kidney and liver functions of bottlenose dolphins. They have been building up in polar bears and causing neurological damage, and can interfere with hormones and disrupt reproduction. They bioaccumulate, and so are concentrating in some of our iconic species to very serious toxic levels.
In terms of the human health impact, there have been some large studies on PFOS and PFOA, which have as a result been banned. These are classified by the EU as carcinogenic, been found to be harmful to human reproduction, and may cause harm to breast-fed children. There are also concerns about PFAS being toxic to specific organs such as the liver. These chemicals have been associated with a huge number of diseases: with PFOA in particular it’s everything from high cholesterol, thyroid disease, testicular cancer, to kidney cancer. PFAS are implicated in learning, and behavioural problems, as well as cancer, immune system disorders, fertility issues and obesity.
Why are we still using them?
Because PFAS are a large group of chemicals, you obviously can't study each of them and make a case that they're harmful. At the current rate, it would take tens of thousands of years to assess and regulate them all. This group of chemicals all share a similar structure and so are extremely likely to exhibit similar levels of toxicity. Yet companies have managed to keep getting away with using some form of PFAS because once one is banned they can just make a tweak and keep using it.
The only practical way to deal with this issue so that you don't just keep going from one PFAS chemical to the next is to take a group-based approach. Taking group action across a whole group of chemicals is what has been done with things like CFCs, for example, and with PCBs.
What has Fidra been doing about all of this?
Initially we were looking at the use of PFAS on textiles, as stain resistance on school uniforms. We found that they weren't really providing any benefit: they weren't making people wash or replace the clothes less frequently, but were potentially contributing to PFAS getting into the environment.
At Fidra we try and work collaboratively so we approached the retailers about the school uniform issue in 2017 and most of them took PFAS out of their clothing lines. Then studies in America found PFAS in takeaway food packaging so we looked at both UK takeaway and supermarket food packaging last year and found it across a number of different products and in eight of the nine major supermarkets tested.
Around this time the Dark Waters movie came out and there was a lot more interest in these chemicals because that film is based around PFOA getting out of a DuPont site in America. On the back of that interest we launched a petition to ask consumers to call for the supermarkets to take forever chemicals out of food packaging.
How difficult would it be to remove PFAS from food packaging?
Denmark has already done it. You can't get rid of it completely because PFAS has already got into everything, so there is a certain background level. But it can't be added to food contact materials in Denmark anymore. So it's completely doable. McDonalds globally has just made a commitment to phase them out and we're asking UK supermarkets to do the same.
The EU Chemical Strategy has indicated this whole group of PFAS chemicals should be phased out of all non-essential uses. And we're asking the UK government in its chemical strategy to do the same. In the meantime, there's no reason why it needs to be in food packaging as alternatives already exist. We can start there and do that tomorrow: it's not a big unrealistic task.
We always try to be really realistic at Fidra about what can be done, and this is definitely one that is within people's power to do. There isn't really any reason why we need to keep using these chemicals in food contact materials.
The Dark Waters film has highlighted the toxicity of PFAS in the US, but is it still relevant to the UK?
When the filmmakers were looking at bringing Dark Waters to the UK they were interested in our work, and during some of the film screenings asked us to give a talk about the science behind it and the relevance for the UK. We were able to demonstrate that this was a UK issue and a diffuse pollution issue, as well as being a site-specific issue in America where it had a really horrific effect on that local community that was shown in the movie. There is an issue globally with the use of PFAS because these chemicals have such long range transport and then there are specific contaminated areas, particularly in America, that are even worse.
What can EHPs do?
Help Fidra find PFAS in food packaging.