Many types of pollutants and contaminants adversely affect the environment, including per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). PFAS include thousands of different chemicals that are widely used in consumer products and manufacturing processes. PFAS pollution is a growing concern as scientists start to understand their long-term effects.
What Is PFAS Contamination?
PFAS contamination is when PFAS substances enter the environment, including soil, air and water systems. PFAS contamination is a significant concern for governments and communities worldwide, as PFAS chemicals are commonly known as “forever chemicals.” Because these substances take considerable time to degrade and break down, PFAS can stay in the environment for decades and can have adverse effects on human and animal health.
How Do PFAS Contaminate the Environment?
PFAS are widely used in the production of numerous products. Some PFAS chemicals are the by-product of manufacturing processes. As a result, PFAS contamination is widespread, with PFAS being found nearly everywhere in the world. PFAS impacts the environment in a number of ways:
- Soil: PFAS can leach into the soil from landfills filled with products coated in PFAS and when firefighting foam containing PFAS is used. Additionally, PFAS-contaminated rainwater can soak into the soil, releasing the substances into the surrounding ground. Chemical spills and biosolids containing PFAS can also release these chemicals into the soil.
- Air: PFAS are released into the air through manufacturing processes that create these substances during production. Many household products contain PFAS, including water- and stain-resistant textile coatings, sealants and paints. Disturbing these products can release PFAS into the air.
- Water: Aqueous film forming foam and chemical spills are among the most common ways PFAS reaches water sources. PFAS can also move through the soil to reach groundwater. Oceans can also absorb PFAS from the air, similar to how they absorb carbon. Waxes for surfboards, boats and jetskis containing PFAS can transfer these chemicals into the water. Washing clothes with products that contain PFAS can also release these substances into the water system.
Once PFAS are in any of these three ecosystems, they will continue to accumulate and move between each system for many years. PFAS are also challenging to remove from the environment. Most municipal water filtration systems are not set up to remove PFAS from the water and require specific filtration systems. Removing PFAS from the soil is expensive and time-consuming, while air filtration can be challenging.
The difficulty of eliminating PFAS from the environment means they will likely remain in the environment and continue to accumulate.
The Effects of PFAS on the Environment
It is easy to see the devasting impact contaminants such as toxic waste and plastic have on the environment. The impact of PFAS is more complex, as the effects are harder to see and analyze. Further, some of the effects can be caused by other contaminants or environmental factors, making it challenging to understand the full impact of PFAS on the environment, humans and wildlife. Research into the long-term impacts of PFAS is ongoing.
PFAS in water systems is a persistent issue. PFAS dissolve in water, and their chemical properties make them difficult to remove from water systems using traditional filtration methods. The result is that many municipal water systems cannot effectively remove PFAS from drinking water using traditional filtration methods, exposing humans and animals to these contaminants. As PFAS can move through soil, they can also reach groundwater, contaminating public and private water systems and wells.
Most research into PFAS contamination has focused on how the chemicals affect water and air systems, so there is less information on the impact on soil. The investigation into PFAS-contaminated soil shows that PFAS can migrate into certain plant species, such as wheat and maize, through root uptake. From there, PFAS can migrate into the animals and humans that eat these plants.
Another concern is that PFAS may alter the physical properties of soil. PFAS can change the pH balance of soil, decrease soil respiration and reduce the number of water-soluble aggregates in the soil. The bacterial diversity of soil is also affected by PFAS contamination, with certain types of bacteria thriving while others die off. All these changes can negatively impact soil health, affecting the health of plants and crops.
The air around factories that use or produce PFAS typically has high PFAS levels. The air in homes and other indoor areas has also been found to be contaminated with PFAS. The use of home products, including protective sprays such as water- and stain-resistant coatings, may be the source of this contamination.
Air contamination increases the chance of exposure through inhalation. PFAS-contaminated air can also redeposit these chemicals back into water and soil systems.
PFAS in the environment can affect animals. High levels of PFAS may cause altered foraging behavior in crayfish, reduced hatching rates in some sea turtle species and lower immune responses in alligators. The chemicals may also be linked to lower reproduction rates in various bird species.
High levels of PFAS have also been recorded in deer and fish, causing some states to issue consumption advisories when high PFAS levels are recorded. These advisories are issued to prevent additional exposure in humans.
Knowing how PFAS affects animals, especially endangered and vulnerable species, is vital. Lower reproduction rates and increased disease rates can be fatal for these species.
Help Protect the Environment From PFAS With TRC
Businesses and governments must take steps to protect the environment from PFAS pollution. There are a few state regulations and laws in place, and the EPA is pushing for more comprehensive regulations to limit the release of PFAS into the environment.
TRC provides extensive Environmental Health and Safety (EHS) Management services that help ensure entities protect employees and the environment and maintain compliance with local, state and federal regulations. We work closely with companies to develop tailored EHS strategies that meet their unique requirements. Our team can also provide an assessment of PFAS risk and liability and can help develop a PFAS risk mitigation or management plan.
Reach out to our team of experts today to help protect the environment from PFAS.