Per- and polyfluorinated substances (PFAS) are a class of human-made chemicals that manufacturers have used in consumer products since 1950. There are more than 4,500 PFAS, which go into making fluoropolymer coatings and other heat-resistant products. PFAS can be in products such as clothing, furniture, food packaging, cooking materials, electrical insulation and firefighting foam. PFAS contamination has become a significant concern for environmentalists around the world, as many of these chemicals are not biodegradable. As a result, PFAS has contaminated soils and water sources across the globe.
How Do PFAS Impact Health?
The effect of PFAS on humans is uncertain; however, studies on animals indicate that PFAS can have serious health effects. Studies have repeatedly shown that exposure to PFAS can stunt growth and development, alter reproductive and thyroid function and damage the immune system and the liver. PFAS can also reduce vaccine effectiveness and increase the risk of kidney and testicular cancer.
Exposure to this potentially dangerous group of chemicals is widespread. People are most likely exposed to PFAS by consuming contaminated water or food or by breathing in PFAS-contaminated air particles. Those who work in the production of PFAS or PFAS-containing products are most at risk of PFAS exposure. In these jobs, workers can inhale PFAS or absorb the chemicals through their skin.
How Do PFAS Harm Developing Countries?
In the developed world, PFAS contamination has received significant scientific and political attention. However, in less wealthy countries, people have done very little to address the issue or even gather data on PFAS. In 2019, a study occurred in 12 Middle Eastern and Asian countries to understand better how PFAS impact the developing world. Unsurprisingly, the study found that PFAS water pollution in these countries is abundant. In Malaysia, for example, the greatest source of drinking water, which supplies water to 6 million people, tested significantly over the PFAS regulatory limits in the United States. Moreover, in Indonesia, PFAS levels in the Jakarta Bay were 10 times as high as the highest-level record in San Francisco Bay.
Widespread PFAS water contamination has led to the contamination of food products in these countries. Studies have shown that PFAS has contaminated seafood and some terrestrial animals in Bangladesh, India, Japan, Sri Lanka and Vietnam. Other consumer products, such as textiles, also contain alarming amounts of PFAS. For example, a Greenpeace investigation found that waterproof coats made in Bangladesh contain 557 µg/m² ionic PFAS. The E.U. limits PFAS to 1 µg/m² in textiles.
In developing countries, the abundance of PFAS has resulted in high PFAS levels in both children and adults. In Jordan, the average level of PFAS in breastmilk is seven times higher than standard drinking water advisory levels in the United States. Similar levels exist in India, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia and Vietnam. Experiencing exposure to high levels of PFAS from birth, it is no surprise that people in these countries also experience high levels of PFAS in their blood.
Solutions for PFAS Contamination
While the impacts of PFAS on human health are not certain, studies on animals suggest that people should implement measures to reduce PFAS contamination on a global level. To protect people in developing countries, PFAS must receive more scientific and political attention in these regions. Members of the international community, such as the United States and E.U. countries, should assist developing nations to gather data on PFAS in their countries. The data could help developing regions implement regulations regarding PFAS production and use. With cooperation from the international community, it is possible that global PFAS contamination could experience better management in the future.
– Mary Kate Langan