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The Hidden, but Omnipresent, Environmental Danger:
The Unseen Dangers of PFAs

Shawn Gregory

Summer 2023

Amidst the constant news about environmental contaminants and chemical pollution, it's nearly impossible to stay informed on every topic. However, certain chemical groups are emerging as top concerns, demanding swift action. One such group, often overlooked, is per- and polyfluoroalkyl acids, commonly known as PFAs.

 

I get it –  the name is daunting.  In reality, the chemical structures of PFAs are quite simple. They typically consist of long chains of carbon atoms bonded to fluorine (hence the "fluoro" in the name) and occasionally other functional groups. Due to this specific chemical structure, PFAs resist natural degradation, persisting in the environment for years, if not decades, and accumulating in the blood serum of organisms like humans.

 

With the growing focus on PFAs, scientists are conducting extensive research on their effects. The results are definitive: studies (linked below) demonstrate that these chemicals can induce neurotoxicity, immunotoxicity, and even cancer by interfering with normal gene expression and disrupting signal pathways. Clearly, PFAs pose a significant and immediate threat to human health.

 

In response to this concern, various organizations are advocating for increased regulation of PFAs. In 2001, 122 countries signed an international treaty at the Stockholm Convention, committing to limit PFA production and use. Additionally, the EPA has reduced the recommended PFA health advisory levels for drinking water contamination with the hopes of forcing more anti-PFAs action. However, PFAs persist in the environment. They are currently used in the manufacturing of non-stick cookware, water-repellent clothing, firefighting foam, artificial turf, and various other products, continually polluting the world's land and water.

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Photo: Firefighting foam, a source of PFA contamination

Photo credit: Image by Andrea from Pixabay

Connecticut experiences PFA contamination as well. Below, a map from the PFAs Project Lab at Northeastern University depicts known sites of PFA contamination around the United States, with a notable concentration in Connecticut and the Northeast.  For instance, in 2019, the Signature Flight hangar at Bradley International Airport accidentally released 50,000 gallons of firefighting foam into the Farmington River, leading to persistent PFA contamination in the area. Another prominent site of PFA contamination in Connecticut is Killingsworth, where town residents found PFAs in the town’s well water. The search for PFAs in Connecticut will continue; CT DEEP and the Department of Public Health intend to investigate over 2,400 sites, ranging from airports to fire stations, for any presence of the chemicals. Ultimately, these examples and many others demonstrate how Connecticut grapples with PFA pollution today and highlight the need for action in response.

In summary, PFA contamination possesses the potential to harm both the environment and human health. Nevertheless, this potential doesn't have to become a reality. By learning more about this issue and taking action to combat it, every individual can contribute to meaningful environmental change.

 

Shawn Gregory is a member of the Sierra Club Connecticut Executive Committee.


 

Representative Sample of PFA Literature: 

Boyd, Raya I et al. “Toward a Mechanistic Understanding of Poly- and Perfluoroalkylated Substances and Cancer.” Cancers vol. 14,12 2919. 14 Jun. 2022, https://doi.org/10.3390/cancers14122919

Charazac, Aurélie, et al. “Low Doses of PFOA Promote Prostate and Breast Cancer Cells Growth through Different Pathways.” International Journal of Molecular Sciences, vol. 23, no. 14, July 2022, p. 7900. Crossref, https://doi.org/10.3390/ijms23147900.

Davidsen, Nichlas et al. “Developmental effects of PFOS, PFOA and GenX in a 3D human induced pluripotent stem cell differentiation model.” Chemosphere vol. 279 (2021): 130624. doi.org/10.1016/j.chemosphere.2021.130624

Foguth, Rachel, et al. “Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS) Neurotoxicity in Sentinel and Non-Traditional Laboratory Model Systems: Potential Utility in Predicting Adverse Outcomes in Human Health.” Toxics, vol. 8, no. 2, June 2020, p. 42. Crossref, https://doi.org/10.3390/toxics8020042.

Negri, S et al. “Caratteristiche, uso e tossicità dei fluorurati: revisione della letteratura” [Characteristics, use and toxicity of fluorochemicals: review of the literature]. Giornale italiano di medicina del lavoro ed ergonomia vol. 30,1 (2008): 61-74.

Pierozan, Paula, and Oskar Karlsson. “Differential susceptibility of rat primary neurons and neural stem cells to PFOS and PFOA toxicity.” Toxicology letters vol. 349 (2021): 61-68. doi.org/10.1016/j.toxlet.2021.06.004

 

Tsuda, Shuji. “Differential toxicity between perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA).” The Journal of toxicological sciences vol. 41,Special (2016): SP27-SP36. doi.org/10.2131/jts.41.SP27

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