• Are you drinking PFASs?

Mass Spectrometry & Spectroscopy

Are you drinking PFASs?

Feb 25 2019

According to a study by Harvard University, more than 16 million residents in America regularly drink water that is contaminated with toxic chemicals from military and industrial sites. The toxic chemicals in question are poly- and perfluoroalkyl substances – also known as PFASs.

Typically used in fire retardants, oil & water repellents, furniture, waterproof clothes and non-stick cookware, the high number of PFASs found in drinking water is a concern for many. The study, published in Environmental Science and Technology Letters, found PFASs in water systems that serve over 16 million people across 33 states in America.

What are PFASs?

Essentially, PFASs are a family of man-made chemicals, including:

  • perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA)
  • perfluorooctane sulfonic acid (PFOS)
  • perfluorononanoic acid (PFNA)
  • perfluorohexane sulfonic acid (PFHxS)
  • perfluordecanoic acid (PFDeA)

With a number of useful properties, such as the ability to repel water, prevent staining and increase heat resistance, these chemicals are widely used within the manufacturing industries.

PFAS contamination

PFAS can be found in the air, soil and water. The polluted substances will break down in the air, fall into the soil and eventually end up in the water system. However, once the chemicals enter the soil and water, they will not break down further. According to Michigan’s ‘PFAS Action Response Team’, “PFAS move easily through the ground, getting into groundwater that is used for some water supplies or for private drinking water wells”.

Drinking water contamination most often occurs in areas close to manufacturing plants and industrial areas as these places tend to use the chemicals to make consumer products. Also, due to the chemical’s presence in firefighting foams, fire training schools, airports and places with a major fire history may have large releases of PFASs.

Health impacts of PFAS contamination

According to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, there are a number of health impacts of PFAS exposure, including:

  • Reduce fertility in women
  • Increase cholesterol levels
  • Increase the risk of certain cancers
  • Affect the immune system
  • Impact the growth, learning and behaviour of children
  • Interfere with natural hormone production

For the most part, these health impacts have been determined through laboratory studies, looking at the impact of these chemicals on animals. However, as animals and humans process chemicals differently, more research needs to be done in order to allow a full understanding of the affect of PFAS on human health.

To learn more about the impact of these chemicals on humans, take a look at the e-learning video ‘Analysis of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFASs) in human blood: methodology and challenges’ to discover some of the challenges faced when it comes to analysing human health impacts.

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