How the Indestructible Molecule that is PFAS Effects the Environment

In the most recent episode of “There’s More to IT,” host Jason Claybrook discussed the widespread exposure of Per and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances, better known as PFAS, in various aspects of everyday life. His guest was Yuran Li, the director of MS Commercial Strategies at Alternative Biomedical Solutions — a Texas based laboratory. The two talked about just what PFAS is, and why the molecules’ existence is harmful.

PFAS is a manmade chemical that repels water and oil, which also makes it a highly preferable component for some commonly-used products. This can include cookware, food wrappings, and paint, according to Li. The first use of PFAS began in the 1940s, and it evidently found its way into various products due to its resistant qualities. And due to that fact, the initial inference of the safety of PFAS was misleading, per Li.

“There is no natural occurrence of this type of molecule, and because everything gets repelled from it, there was always this assumption early on when it was invented, that it’s harmless,” said Li.

But decades later and after many studies, even by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), it has been concluded the concerns regarding PFAS are major harm to the environment and living beings.

PFAS does not break down into the environment the way other molecules can, which means it presents a different type of danger for the environment. And just based on bioaccumulation, PFAS’ has found its way into every living organism, said Li.

Current studies are still in the early stages of determining just how toxic PFAS can be to the human body, and what levels would be considered a cause for immediate concern. But there is a connection between it and other health issues, said Li.

“Some of the early links were cancers, thyroid issues is one of the biggest ones being investigated at the moment, and pregnancy issues,” said Li.

People with major thyroid problems and hormonal imbalances were shown to have a lot of exposure to PFAS, added Li. But he stated that the studies between PFAS and infertility is a growing concern that is taking precedence.

Even more daunting is the formidablilty of PFAS. Being that it cannot break down environmentally, that also means it doesn’t break down in the body either. Subsequently, the response for health issues or symptoms related to PFAS is basic treatment. But even treatment like chemotherapy or cancer medications can’t break down the substance.

Li joked that even diamonds aren’t as long-lasting, and stated that PFAS is expected to be around for a long time due to the weight of effort that even needs to be made just to fully eliminate it. For example, if PFAS ends up in wildlife, it is expected to be there practically forever.

“It will take millions of years before they would even begin to start breaking down —  that’s how strong that molecules’ bonds are,” said Li. “Right now the only method really of getting rid of PFAS is really high heat incineration.”

Only extremely high heat can destroy PFAS, but even if that method was widely utilized, it would create another domino effect of environmental issues such as harming the natural water supply.

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