Forever Chemicals: The Past, Present & Future of PFAS

PFAS, also called "forever chemicals," have been used in everything from raincoats to electronics. But their popularity is at risk as more concerns about their health and environmental impact emerge.

Forever Chemicals: The Past, Present & Future of PFAS

Forever Chemicals: The Past, Present & Future of PFAS

  • PFAS (Per- and Polyfluorinated Alkyl Substances) are known as "forever chemicals" due to their extreme stability and resistance to degradation.
  • Forever chemicals have various industrial applications due to their unique properties, including waterproof jackets, nonstick pans, and electronics coatings.
  • Their persistence in the environment, long half-lives, and accumulation in human bodies raise concerns about health and environmental impacts.
  • Forever chemicals have been found to disrupt endocrine systems, suppress immune function, and have other adverse health effects in humans.
  • The Biden administration is taking steps to address PFAS contamination through research, regulation, and funding for cleanup efforts.

According to recent estimates, there are as many as 350,000 total chemicals and chemical mixtures in commercial production we may engage with in various ways. These chemicals appear in everything from furniture and apparel to cookware, cosmetics, and electronics. While many of these chemicals don’t pose significant risks to humans, wildlife, or our surrounding ecosystems, some compounds have high-profile notoriety for the environmental destruction and deterioration they bring. 

So where do forever chemicals fit into this range? 

What Are Forever Chemicals? 

Let’s start by looking at their more technical moniker: PFAS. PFAS stands for per- and polyfluorinated alkyl substances. 

PFAS are a large chemical family encompassing over 9,000 highly fluorinated substances. The common feature that connects all these chemicals is that they have carbon atoms linked to fluorine atoms. This carbon-fluorine bond makes PFAS extremely stable both thermally and chemically—meaning they’re resistant to high temperatures and take a long time to degrade. They’re also highly effective at repelling water, grease, and stains.

Where PFAS Appear in Common Household Applications 

This collection of unique and highly advantageous properties lends itself to a sweeping variety of products and applications. A few of these include waterproof jackets, nonstick pans, sunscreen, and coatings for various electronics. Simply put, PFAS are invisible but ever-present aspects of our everyday lives. They’re embedded in the clothes we wear, the equipment we cook with, the lotions we apply to our bodies. While most people rarely give a moment’s thought to these chemicals, they’re closely bound up with the utility and convenience that characterize much of our seamlessly efficient modern lives. 

Why PFAS are called the Forever Chemicals 

While many of the distinctive properties of forever chemicals are virtues for the products they’re incorporated into, one of those properties has also led to a more complicated picture of these chemicals. Because of the extraordinary chemical stability the carbon-fluorine bond confers to PFAS—one of the strongest known chemical bonds in the world—the substances have earned the moniker “forever chemicals” in the media and in popular discourse. 

The title is exceedingly well-earned. 

Many of these forever chemicals have half-lives of over 1,000 years in soil and greater than 40 years in water. (A half-life refers to the amount of time it takes a specific chemical to decrease by 50% in a particular medium.) More troubling is the fact that it takes PFAS around four years for their levels to go down by half in the human body. For perspective, the threshold for “very persistent” chemicals, according to EU chemical regulation, is a half-life of 180 days in soil and 60 days in water. The PFAS family of chemicals, in other words, demonstrate extreme persistence in almost any medium, including living organisms. 

What scientists and researchers have been striving to get a clearer picture of over the past few decades is exactly what the implications of this highly unusual persistence are. What does forever chemicals’ extraordinary resistance to deterioration mean for our environments, the well-being of the planet’s wildlife, and our own long-term health? 

How Forever Chemicals Came to Be In Just About Everything

While there are thousands of PFAS currently in existence, historically the most widely used of these compounds are perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS). 

Other widespread PFAS include PFNA, PFDA, PFOS, and PFBS. PFOS and PFOA are both considered “long-chain” PFAS because they possess eight carbon atoms (forming a long-chain), all but one of which are bonded to fluorine atoms. Prior to the experimentation carried out by scientists working for manufacturing and chemical companies in the 20th century, the carbon-fluorine bond was incredibly rare. Now, however, it’s spread to just about every corner of the planet. 

Despite how pervasive they are today, the existence of PFAS date back only around 75 years. The first PFAS compound, polytetrafluorethylene, was synthesized by the chemical company DuPont at its Jackson Laboratory in Deepwater, New Jersey in 1938. It would take another eight years of careful research and testing before this man-made chemical was introduced to the world, in the form of the highly durable, nonstick, heat-resistant resin known as Teflon (or PTFE). A few years later, in the early 1950s, two scientists working for 3M were trying to develop a new type of rubber for aircraft fuel lines when they happened upon a PFAS that would eventually be utilized in the creation of Scotchgard, the stain- and water-repellant finish used on furniture upholstery, carpets, and other fabrics. 

Why Forever Chemicals Became So Popular 

Following the inventions of these two products, which would go on to become household names and iconic American brands, PFAS started spreading throughout the world of industrial manufacturing. Enthusiastic about the ways fluorocarbons could improve upon existing products and make them more commercially viable, companies began incorporating them into a dizzying array of popular commodities. Their resistance to heat, water, stains, and degrading meant that PFAS could be used as a coating for dozens of essential products. Shoes, apparel, outdoor equipment, food packaging, and cosmetics would all eventually get treated with forever chemicals. 

The expanding use of PFAS was not just restricted to a handful of industries manufacturing products for public consumption, either. By the 1960s, the US military partnered with 3M and started using PFAS in specialized firefighting foams known as aqueous film-forming foams (AFFF). Over time, these foams, which utilize fluorocarbons to smother dangerous liquid fires and prevent reignition, would become permanent facets of the emergency infrastructure at airports, fire stations, military complexes, and large fuel facilities worldwide. 

How DuPont and 3M Contributed to the Mass Production of Forever Chemicals

In these early decades of forever chemicals’ existence, their production was dominated by two companies: 3M and DuPont. 3M, founded in 1902 as the Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Company, opened a sprawling research and production facility in 1947 in Cottage Grove, Minnesota. It was at this plant where 3M produced the PFAS that went into Teflon, and would later manufacture the chemicals that produced Scotchgard. DuPont, meanwhile, officially launched a chemical factory it christened Washington Works in Parkersburg, West Virginia, in 1948. For the rest of the century and beyond, Washington Works was where many of the company’s Teflon products were made. 

Over the course of little more than three decades, PFAS and the companies that synthesized and produced them grew into an essential layer in multinational manufacturing. Integrally involved in a multitude of different industries, they firmly planted themselves in the global supply chain. But while these groundbreaking compounds were making dozens of products more resilient and versatile— granting them a kind of invulnerability to the sorts of things that might otherwise erode their quality and deteriorate them over time—they were also quietly spreading through the planet, lodging themselves in air, water, soil, even the human body. And because of their extremely long half-lives, this silent, gradual infiltration process would come to have major implications for our health and the environment for decades to come. 

Early Public Perception Around Forever Chemicals

For most of the 20th century, during the initial emergence of PFAS and the advent of what some experts have taken to calling the “Chemical Century,” the vast majority of consumers did not suspect that PFAs were toxic or harmful. Instead, they were being celebrated. Here was a revolutionary scientific innovation that directly improved quality of life for millions of people all over the world. For the most part, the public’s view was positive and uncomplicated. Underneath the explosive success of these chemicals and their enthusiastic reception, however, was a considerably darker and more complex picture. 

Learning About Forever Chemicals’ Effects: Widespread Chemical Exposure 

As early as the 1970s, individuals at 3M were becoming aware of the fact that PFAS were accumulating in human blood. Further, the company’s own experiments on lab animals were confirming that these substances were toxic. And although the US Environmental Protection Agency was created in 1970, 3M and DuPont failed to share any of this internal research with the newly formed agency for decades. Instead, it would take many years for the toxicity of PFAS to become more broadly known, and for any sort of regulations to be imposed on the chemical manufacturers. 

Two events took place in 1999 that finally blew the cover off the chemical juggernauts. First, following a national sampling, the EPA detected PFAS in the blood serum samples of 98 percent of the US population. The startling revelation strongly suggested, as the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry puts it, “widespread chemical exposure.” Separately, a farmer based in Parkersburg, West Virginia filed a lawsuit against DuPont, alleging that the company’s toxic waste disposal was responsible for the mysterious deaths of dozens of his cattle (the court case was covered widely, and was eventually adapted into the 2019 film Dark Waters). The subsequent trial revealed that DuPont had dumped thousands of tons of PFAS into a landfill near the farmer’s property. The toxic waste ended up poisoning the water supply—not only for a single herd of cattle, either, but for some 80,000 people in Ohio and West Virginia. 

The Launch of the PFOA Stewardship Program in Response

In the wake of these two explosive discoveries, a gradual reckoning began to take shape. Following half a century of manufacturing PFAS without consequences and reaping billions of dollars in profits from the chemicals, DuPont and 3M were finally forced to answer to not only the EPA but an American population who was finally becoming aware of decades of corporate deceit and malfeasance. In 2000, 3M announced that it would be ending its production of PFOA and PFOS—the most commonly used forever chemicals substances. Later findings would suggest that the company was increasingly aware of the forever chemicals’ effects. 3M knew, it would seem, that an environmental and ethical fallout was imminent. Over the following decade, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency learned that various 3M dump sites scattered around the company’s Cottage Grove plant were contaminating groundwater in the area and that high levels of PFAS were turning up in local fish populations. 

Several years later, in 2006, the EPA brokered a deal it called the PFOA Stewardship Program. According to the agreement, eight global corporations, including DuPont and 3M, would completely phase out production of PFOA and other long-chain PFAS by 2015. A 2021 paper published in Frontiers in Toxicology pointed to the program’s positive effects. The “phasing out of these compounds,” the paper stated, “resulted in a decline in human blood serum concentrations of PFOS and PFOA between the years of 2000 and 2015.” 

The Industry Response: A Transition to Short-Chain Chemicals 

The PFOA Stewardship Program did not, however, spell the end of PFAS. Instead, it triggered an industry-wide transition from the long-chain form of these compounds to a short-chain replacement. While there is some overlap depending on the overall chemical makeup of the compounds, long-chain PFAS generally have seven or more carbon molecules—often referred to as their “carbon backbone”—while short-chains possess six or fewer. 

DuPont, 3M, and the rest of the chemical industry has aggressively asserted that the short-chain PFAS replacements are far safer and less toxic than their predecessors. Various recent studies have cast serious doubt on that characterization. The frustrating reality is that it may take years to comprehensively suss out the full health and environmental effects of short-chain PFAS. By the time studies and evidence arrive, substantial damage may very well have already been done. 

Exploring PFAS Contamination On A Health and Ecological Level

The timeline that led to the gradual phasing out of long-chain PFAS like perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) is well-established and relatively straightforward. Understanding the actual health and ecological consequences of these chemicals, on the other hand, is a far more complex and sprawling affair. A sensible place to start is with the chemicals’ exposure pathways: how PFAS enter and ultimately accumulate in the bodies of humans and wildlife. 

PFAS’s Environmental Pathways: The Drinking Water Case 

One of the most notorious and well-documented of these exposure pathways is drinking water. Contaminated drinking water is what put the dangers of PFAS in the public spotlight in 1999, when DuPont’s disposal of PFAS waste near its Washington Works chemical plant was found to be poisoning the Ohio River and the water supply for tens of thousands of people. Subsequent studies conducted by the EPA have found concentrations of PFAS that exceed the agency’s advisory levels in the public water supplies of millions of Americans. The Environmental Working Group, a D.C.-based organization focused on toxic chemicals and corporate accountability, publishes a tracking map that shows PFAS contamination in water systems covering all 50 states and 19 million people. 

Although contaminated water supplies make for the most gripping narratives, with their layers of cover-ups, corporate misbehavior, and aggrieved Americans, it’s everyday consumer products—and food products, specifically—that have been the most dominant exposure pathway since the introduction of PFAS in the 1950s. The chemicals are frequently found in the food packaging used by fast food restaurants, where they’re utilized for their grease-resistant properties. From there, they migrate into sandwiches, burgers, fries, salads, and everything else these chains serve customers. Despite public declarations by some fast-food chains to phase out their use of compounds on the forever chemicals list, recent studies continue to find their presence widespread in the industry. 

Finally, because of the way that PFAS are able to rapidly move through soil and leach into groundwater and, ultimately, waterways, they are shockingly prevalent among freshwater fish. A recent EWG study found that consuming just a single serving of freshwater fish is as harmful, from a PFAS contamination perspective, as is drinking a month’s supply of water laced with the chemicals. 

Forever Chemicals’ Effects on Human Health 

These substances have spent decades burrowing into the water we drink, the food we eat, even the air we breathe. And by the turn of the century, the vast majority of Americans had some level of PFAS in their blood. That leaves two pressing questions: Were these chemicals dangerous to human health? And if so, in what ways? 

Any exploration into the negative health effects of PFAS exposure must start with the C8 Health Project. Undertaken in the wake of a class action settlement against DuPont for its contamination of water supplies surrounding its Washington Works chemical plant in West Virginia, the C8 Project was a yearlong epidemiological study of nearly 70,000 people that lived near the facility. The results were nothing short of alarming. First, the study found that the participants had PFAS levels in their blood that were five times higher than that of any other previously observed population. Second, it identified probable links between PFAS exposure and six different diseases, including thyroid disease, testicular and kidney cancer, and pregnancy-induced hypertension. 

Following the C8 Project, dozens of other studies were carried out to further identify the health and physiological impacts of PFAS exposure. This body of research has found that these chemicals can disrupt the endocrine system, leading to hormonal issues; suppress the immune system; negatively affect reproductive functions; and serve as a catalyst for high cholesterol. Taken as a whole, the research conducted over the past two decades has established indisputable evidence that PFAS are harmful to human health in a myriad of ways. 

How PFAS Affect the Environment and Wildlife 

Research into forever chemicals’ effects on wildlife has been less comprehensive or conclusive. Nevertheless, studies have shown that the chemicals are present in over 330 species worldwide, including large and small mammals, birds, fish, and reptiles. More specifically, there’s evidence that PFAS exposure affects the immune systems of bottlenose dolphins and sea otters, and the brains, reproductive systems, and hormones of polar bears. 

Because of the way PFAS spread to groundwater, rivers, and eventually oceans, they are of particular concern to marine ecosystems. Although the highest concentrations of PFAS are found in waterways near chemicals plants and wastewater treatments facilities, their extraordinary persistence and mobility has allowed them to spread to some of the farthest reaches of the planet. To date, PFAS have been found to impact the reproductive health and immune systems of aquatic birds, mussels, and fish. PFAS have also proven to be highly toxic to aquatic invertebrates and algae. Studies have shown that elevated levels of the chemicals “decrease algal biomass and lead to chronic toxicity,” according to nonprofit Seaside Sustainability. The ecological reverberations of this cannot be overstated. Because of the bedrock role that algae play in marine ecosystems, any significant reduction in their biomass can have major repercussions for many other interrelated species. It’s possible, too, that current research has only skimmed the surface of just how detrimental PFAS are to oceanic habitats.

The Slow Progress of PFAS Regulation 

Although PFAS had been around since the 1940s, it wasn’t until the late 1990s that the EPA started to see these chemicals as a potential threat to human health. Following the discoveries of 1999—when the agency learned that PFAS were present in the blood of 98 percent of Americans and DuPont was becoming mired in the scandal over contaminating water supplies—the EPA grew more decisive in its regulatory action. 

In December of 2002, the agency published a significant new use rule, known as a SNUR, that required chemical companies to notify the agency before manufacturing any of 75 specific PFAS. While the SNUR did not amount to an outright ban, it severely limited the circumstances under which these chemicals could be used. (In the EPA’s words, the SNUR allowed for the “continuation of a few specifically limited, highly technical uses of these chemicals for which no alternatives were available.”) Over the following decade-and-a-half, several more SNURs would follow.

The next major regulatory action came in 2006, when the EPA launched the so-called Stewardship Program with eight of the leading PFAS manufacturers. This agreement effectively initiated the transition from long-chain to short-chain PFAS that would take place throughout the 2000s and 2010s. A decade later, in 2016, the EPA announced a Provisional Health Advisory on PFOS and PFOA in drinking water. It established that the combined levels of these two PFAS should not exceed 70 parts per trillion. According to the agency, the level “offers a margin of protection for all Americans throughout their life from adverse health effects.” The health advisory served as a catalyst for increased awareness of the dangers of PFAS in drinking water nationwide. In the years that followed, many states began testing levels in their water supplies. 

PFAs Abroad: International Forever Chemical Regulations

While the U.S. gradually increased its regulation of PFAS, the international community also focused on the dangers of the far-flung, hyper-mobile substances on the forever chemicals list. In 2009, the Stockholm Convention, an international treaty developed to protect humans from what it terms persistent organic pollutants (POPs), added perfluorooctane sulfonic acid (PFOS) and perfluorooctane sulfonyl fluoride (PFOSF) to its list of POPs. This effectively meant that all 150-plus countries participating in the convention were agreeing to severely restrict or eliminate altogether the production and use of these substances. As of 2022, the Stockholm Convention had added perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorohexane sulfonic acid (PFHxS) to the list. Additional international bodies, including the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA), restrict the manufacturing and use of specific PFAS. 

Now: The Biden Administration and Forever Chemicals 

Since coming into power in 2021, the Biden administration has been even more forceful than its predecessors in taking action against PFAS. In October of that year, the EPA announced a PFAS Strategic Roadmap, a multifaceted, “whole-of-agency” approach to the chemicals that includes directives to research exposures and toxicities; restrict further PFAS from entering the environment; and clean up existing contamination. The roadmap also tasks the Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention with ensuring that the PFAS that are still in use are not presenting novel concerns and preventing any resumption of production of so-called legacy PFAS. 

The Truth About Short-Chain PFAS 

Now that there is a relatively sweeping consensus that long-chain PFAS are unsafe, attention has shifted to their short-chain successors. Unsurprisingly, the chemical industry has long maintained that short-chain PFAS are significantly safer than the generation of forever chemicals that preceded them. But CHEM Trust, a UK-based nonprofit focused on raising awareness regarding harmful chemicals, casts doubt on that assessment. As they put it in a 2019 paper on PFAS, “the industry claims that the alternative PFAS are ‘safer’ but the truth is that environmental and toxicological data are often lacking for these emerging PFAS.” 

In the scant few years since that paper was published, however, critical new research has been conducted that raises substantial causes for concern about the new generation of PFAS. Two studies published by the FDA in 2020 looked at 6:2 FTOH, one of the most widely used short-chain compounds. One of the studies investigated the chemical’s bioaccumulation in lab rats and found that it built up in the liver, fat, and blood of the animals, persisting for over a year. The second study demonstrated that the chemical industry’s claims about the safety of 6:2 FTOH were, at least in part, built on faulty premises. Taken collectively, these studies have stoked debate and even controversy about the extent to which the EPA and other regulatory agencies should be intervening more aggressively in the production and use of the latest generation of forever chemicals. 

What It Takes to Remove Forever Chemicals from the Supply Chain 

Given the amount of evidence that has accumulated in recent years pointing to the serious dangers associated with PFAS, many companies are moving to a stricter, more responsible stance on the forever chemicals list. Beginning in 2020, ChemSec, a nonprofit that advocates for the transition from toxic chemicals to safer alternatives, has initiated a “corporate PFAS movement.” To date, well over 50 companies—including H&M, Lacoste, New Balance, and Ralph Lauren—have joined the initiative, which supports strong, responsible PFAS regulation and encourages companies to gradually phase the chemicals out of global supply chains. 

Perhaps even more notably, in 2022 ChemSec gathered over fifty institutional investors with collective assets exceeding $11 trillion dollars to call on chemical companies to stop manufacturing PFAS. This culminated in a letter the investors sent to chemical manufacturers all over the world. The impact was almost immediate. Within a month, 3M announced that it would be phasing out its production of PFAS. Citing evolving landscapes among regulators, consumers, and investors, the company declared that it would “work to discontinue the use of PFAS across its product portfolio by the end of 2025.” This groundbreaking decision by 3M is sure to have significant reverberations for major PFAS manufacturers all over the world. Seeing such a major global company ban PFAS may push them closer to ending their own production of these increasingly tainted chemicals. 

Taking PFAS Out of the Environment: How Big Is the Problem? 

In large part because of the expanding awareness of the health hazards of forever chemicals, the role and prominence of PFAS have gradually diminished over the past decade. But that doesn’t change the fact that, to quote environmental attorney Rob Bilott, these substances are in “the blood of virtually every person on the planet” (to say nothing of their rampant infiltration of our natural environments). One of the most significant challenges communities, governments, and nonprofit organizations now face is the prospect of undertaking cleanup efforts to reverse some of the ecological damage forever chemicals have wrought. 

There are just a handful of methods for PFAS remediation, and most of them have only proven to be moderately successful. The most widely studied and practiced technique is called granular activated carbon (GAC). GAC is made from raw organic materials with high concentrations of carbon, including coal, wood, and coconut shells. During the GAC process, the activated carbon is used to adsorb PFAS from water or soil. (Adsorption is the chemical process by which the molecules of a gas, liquid, or dissolved solid collect on the surface of a solid material.) According to the EPA, GAC is very effective at removing long-chain PFAS like PFOA and PFOS from contaminated media. Unfortunately, it’s less effective at removing the shorter-chain PFAS.

As part of its ongoing efforts to combat PFAS and other toxic chemicals, the Biden administration in February allocated $2 billion to help states and territories address water contamination. While it is a significant measure for a president that has gone further than any of his predecessors in addressing the long-term harm of PFAS, the scale of the contamination in the U.S. suggests that it may not go nearly far enough. A recent report released by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA), for example, estimates that the cost of removing PFAS from wastewater streams in the state would be between $14 and $28 billion. As the home state for 3M and its Cottage Grove production facility, Minnesota’s levels of forever chemical contamination may not necessarily be representative of the country as a whole. Such eye-popping figures, though, nevertheless speak to the staggering cost of the problem. 

Forever Chemicals on Military Bases 

Further complicating the prospects of a successful nationwide PFAS remediation are the situations on hundreds of U.S. military installations throughout the country. After decades of using specialized firefighting foams known as AFFF during training exercises and in emergency situations, these bases and their surrounding communities now live with disproportionate levels of PFAS in their public drinking water systems. A recent analysis by the Environmental Working Group found that the cost for removing PFAS from 50 of these sites may exceed $30 billion. And while the Department of Defense has already committed billions to cleanup efforts, its budget still falls well short of the overwhelming need. 

These examples clearly illustrate that the U.S. government is ramping up its efforts to weed forever chemicals out of our environment and public infrastructure. The sheer level of contamination, however—combined with the extreme costs of utilizing GAC and other expensive technologies—makes this an enormous undertaking. 

Replacing PFAS in the Supply Chain 

Because of their multifaceted utility and the way in which they’ve integrated themselves into so many industries over the past 60-plus years, forever chemicals are going to be exceedingly challenging to replace. As one 2015 paper investigating alternatives to PFAS understatedly explained, “it has been difficult to find substitutes that match the function and performance level of PFASs.” Further complicating the transition away from these chemicals is the fact that the industry has arguably embraced a shortcut, in the form of short-chain PFAS, that may be only marginally less harmful than the long-chain compounds that came before them. Such attempts to temporarily appease regulatory agencies and the public at large may only make things worse. Without making the necessary radical shifts in chemical manufacturing, these companies draw out the entire process of weaning ourselves off these destructive substances. 

One promising development in the field, however, lies in the emergence of chemical alternative assessments (CAA). These studies, which are often carried out by state agencies, seek to identify viable alternatives to PFAS in various consumer products. In 2021, for example, Washington State conducted a CAA that ultimately triggered a statewide ban on four types of food packaging. State-sponsored CAAs serve both corporations and the public by conducting comprehensive searches for chemical and nonchemical alternatives that manufacturers can use as substitutes for PFAS. 

In the immediate term, CAAs are a useful mechanism for aiding companies in shifting away from forever chemicals without dramatically impacting the viability of their products. In the medium and longer term, though, more restrictive measures will be required. If we want to earnestly begin the process of fully recovering from decades of PFAS contaminating our bodies and our ecosystems, national and global regulatory agencies must embrace and enact a substantive and lasting ban on every generation and iteration of these dangerous and even deadly forever chemicals.

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