Beyond Firefighting Foam: The Expanding Universe of Forever Chemicals

There is a section of synthetic chemicals (in)famously known as “forever chemicals.” When released into the environment these toxins remain there for centuries poisoning our water, contaminating our food, and threatening lives.

These robust intruders are known to mankind as Per-and-poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). PFAS chemicals boast an impressive resume: they resist water and grease, withstand heat and flames, and are slippery on surfaces. These qualities have made them a go-to entity for many industries–from waterproof jackets and non-stick pans to cosmetics and food packaging!

What the industry giants have seldom highlighted is the dark side of this miracle commodity. PFAS are pervasive, i.e., they tend not to break down in nature or even when inside our bodies. With time, they start accumulating in our organs bit by bit, corroding their functioning. 

The scientific jury is still out on the full extent of the damage these “forever chemicals” can inflict, but the shadows they cast are long and foreboding.
In reality, these chemicals are present everywhere. In this blog, we will delve into the silent pandemic PFAS has become in recent years. 

A World Contaminated: Mapping the Footprint of PFAS

Aqueous Film Firefighting foam, known as AFFF, was a staple in many fire control operations. It finds extensive use in cases where flammable liquids like oil, gasoline, or jet fuel cause a fire. When water mixes with the foam, it creates a film that stops the flow of oxygen to a fire and thus puts it out.

While effective in firefighting, many studies claim that AFFF contains carcinogenic chemicals, PFAS. These toxic chemicals have been linked to a variety of serious health issues, like cancers of the liver, colon, pancreas, and kidney, increased cholesterol levels, and decreased vaccine response in children, to name a few. 

It was only when a court battle ensued against manufacturers responsible for PFAS-containing firefighting foam that their perilous effects came into the public limelight.  It was the AFFF lawsuit that shed light on military bases as ground zero, to begin with. Decades of using PFAS-laden firefighting foam in these bases had left the soil and water around these installations poisoned.

But, the harsh reality is that these chemicals have spread far and wide, lurking in places closer than we think. A plethora of manufacturing sites have become silent polluters, spewing PFAS into the air and water through emissions and wastewater. 

Even water treatment plants, tasked with cleaning our mess, struggle against the persistence of PFAS. These facilities, meant to be protectors, can release these contaminants back into the environment, perpetuating the cycle of pollution.

The most unsettling part? The very things we rely on for survival – our food and water – are not immune. Studies have revealed that at least 45% of the USA’s tap water may contain traces of PFAS. 

This chemical (and its variants) has also been found in water, fish, shellfish, fruits, and vegetables. This contamination can come from polluted irrigation water, plants absorbing PFAS from contaminated soil, or even the packaging of our groceries. 

Even our drinking water, the source of life itself, is not always safe, highlighting the urgent need for stricter regulations and more effective filtration systems.

The map of PFAS contamination is a chilling testament to the reach of these chemicals and the urgency of addressing their impact. This is more than an environmental issue; it’s a threat to our communities, our health, and our future. 

The Silent Menace: Unveiling the Health Risks of PFAS

Scientific research over the years has linked the “forever” chemicals, PFAS, to numerous serious health problems. A study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that PFAS is present in the blood of about 98% of Americans. Exposure to these chemicals can have long-term consequences for one’s health.

A study in the United States traced the health of close to 70,00 individuals living near a DuPont plant over eight years. Their blood samples revealed a “probable connection” between exposure to a specific PFAS chemical, PFOA, and six potential health consequences:

  • elevated cholesterol
  • ulcerative colitis
  • thyroid disorders 
  • testicular cancer
  • kidney cancers 
  • high blood pressure during pregnancy 

A study in Environ Health Perspectives 2020 indicates that exposure to PFAS may increase prostate cancer risk. While there is a need for comprehensive research to confirm these links, the growing body of evidence denotes a disturbing trend especially given how widespread contamination with PFAS has become.

Amidst the popular discussion about PFAS, cancer is widely used as a key point. But as we dive deep into the large body of evidence, it becomes necessary to analyze the possible outcomes beyond the certified connection with certain cancers.

One alarming issue that has come up in recent years, is that of thyroid dysfunction. An important study of 2012 published in the Journal of American Medical Association, revealed that high levels of PFAS can be linked to an increased risk for hypothyroidism in women. 

PFAS toxins are practically present everywhere. These chemicals have seeped deep into our ecosystem and food chain. A glaring proof of this is that PFAS exposure has also affected newborns and pregnant women.

These chemicals have been found to impair mental function and cause attention deficits in developing children. This group of toxins has also been linked to a heightened occurrence of gestational diabetes and preeclampsia. Research also shows that there is a likely connection between prenatal exposure and low birth weight.

These revelations are against the backdrop of ongoing legal actions about exposure to PFAS. A series of lawsuits have ensued against chemical manufacturing giants for not alerting consumers about the severe health hazards of these toxins.

As stated by TorHoerman Law, numerous litigations related to AFFF firefighting foam have held manufacturers responsible, including but not limited to:

  • 3M
  • DuPont
  • Chemours
  • Tyco Fire Products
  • ChemDesign Inc

Forever Chemicals Won’t Last Forever

Let’s ditch the PFAS and choose smarter products. Can we use raincoats without forever chemicals? Check. What about cookware that doesn’t shed PFAS flakes? You bet! Supporting companies that care about our health and planet makes a big difference.

As mentioned earlier, your tap water might be PFAS-heavy. So, install a filter that grabs these unwanted toxins. Try and research PFAS hotspots in your area and raise your voice for stricter regulations.

Every action counts, even the smallest ones.

EPA Takes Major Strides in Combating PFAS Contamination

In a significant victory for public health, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently launched two major initiatives to combat the widespread issue of per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) contamination in drinking water.

  1. The EPA enacted a new postulate in March 2023. This decorum states that the permissible levels of PFAS within drinking water cannot exceed six. 
  2. Further demonstrating national commitment, in February 2023, the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law allocated $2 billion to tackle the concerns about PFAS and other emerging contaminants in drinking water systems nationwide. 

To harness the power of public awareness, the Agency launched a web platform– PFAS Analytic Tools – in February 2023. This platform stands to serve as a comprehensive database, providing accessible information about potential local sources of PFAS contamination. 

By empowering communities with knowledge, the platform aims to foster informed decision-making and facilitate proactive community involvement in addressing local PFAS concerns.The combined force of stricter regulations, community engagement, increased funding, and enhanced public awareness paves the way for a more comprehensive and effective national response to this critical environmental and public health issue.





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