9 April 2021. An online gathering of over 100 people held to mark World Health Day last Wednesday highlighted the dangers posed by a class of highly persistent chemicals dubbed as “forever chemicals” and the urgent need to protect the people and the environment from such substances.

Organized by the EcoWaste Coalition and the International Pollutants Elimination Network (IPEN), the “D-Tox Webinar on Forever Chemicals” turned the spotlight on the hazards of PFAS (the acronym for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances), a group of over 5,000 chemicals that has earned the moniker “forever chemicals” because they don’t break down easily and can stay in the environment indefinitely, build up in human bodies over time and bring about adverse health outcomes.

Resource persons Pamela Miller (Co-Chair of IPEN and Executive Director of the Alaska Community Action on Toxics) and Jeff Gearhart (Research Director of Healthy Stuff Lab and Ecology Center) led the discussion on PFAS and recommended actions to control and prevent exposure to these persistent chemicals.

“These PFAS chemicals are harmful to our health at exceptionally low exposure levels. We must take collective action to hold chemical manufacturers accountable and ban PFAS as a class to prevent further harm to our environment and health,” said Miller.

“People who are exposed to PFAS may be more vulnerable to COVID-19 and its complications,” added Miller. “PFAS can harm the immune system and lower our resistance to infectious diseases. Studies show that PFAS exposure can lower antibody response to vaccines such as tetanus, diphtheria, flu, and rubella.”

For his part, Gearhart encouraged manufacturers to eliminate and find safer substitutes for PFAS in their products. “We know the hazards that are inherent to many PFAS chemicals, although there are 1,000’s of PFAS chemicals which are poorly studied,” he said. “As a result, for many product applications, we don’t even know the identity of the specific chemicals being used until they start showing up in our food, our bodies, our water, and environment.”

PFAS are known for their grease- and water-resistant properties and are used in numerous products, including non-stick cookware, greaseproof food packaging, water-repellant clothing, stainproof carpets and upholstery, fire fighting foams, polishes and waxes, paints, coatings and sealants, personal care and cosmetic products, etc.

Humans are exposed to PFAS by drinking PFAS-contaminated water, eating food crops grown on PFAS-contaminated soil, cooked in PFAS-laden cookware or packaged in PFAS-containing disposable packaging material, consuming fish caught from PFAS-contaminated water, inhaling air and dust particles polluted with PFAS, and skin absorption from cleaning and cosmetic products containing PFAS.

Adverse health effects associated with exposure to PFAS include pregnancy-induced hypertension, immune suppression, liver and kidney damage, increased cholesterol, increased risk of thyroid disease, increased risk of asthma, decreased fertility, decreased birth weight and decreased antibody response to vaccines.

To avoid PFAS, exposure, the public is encouraged to:

— Avoid non-stick pans and kitchen utensils, and use stainless steel or cast iron instead.

— Be wary of fabrics labeled stain- or water-repellant.

— Minimize greasy fast foods—these foods often come in PFAS-treated containers.

— Avoid microwaveable popcorn and popcorn the old-fashioned way—on the stovetop.

— Choose personal care products without “PTFE” or “fluoro” ingredients.

— Find products that haven’t been pre-treated and skip optional stain-repellant treatments on new carpets and furniture.

To prevent further use of PFAS chemicals and their eventual release into the environment, the following actions are likewise recommended.

— Ban PFAS as a class, including the use of PFAS chemicals in firefighting foam, food packaging, textiles, and other non-essential products.

— Require that industry disclose PFAS content in products and provide clear warning labels.

— Establish health-protective drinking water standards and ensure that contaminated communities are provided with safe sources of drinking water.

–Require environmental and human biomonitoring of PFAS chemicals to prevent chronic and acute exposures.

— Hold manufacturers financially responsible for cleaning up PFAS pollution and the harm it caused communities.

“As PFAS are poorly regulated in most countries, we urge the governments to take a more proactive approach to control and phase out these highly persistent substances. Actions that will prevent and reduce the harmful impacts of PFAS on human health and the ecosystems will contribute to the achievement of sustainable development and a toxics-free future for all,” said Chinkie Peliño-Golle, IPEN Regional Coordinator for Southeast and East Asia based in the Philippines.