Deeper Dive Into PFAS

Are PFAS Harmful To Health?

Some of the most pressing health issues of the 21st century lie within the food we eat, the products we use, and, most importantly, the air we breathe. Our environment has become polluted over the years due to synthetic materials that are destroying our health. One of these infamous materials is known as PFAS. PFAS, also known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, are “a group of man-made chemicals that have been in use since the 1940s, and are (or have been) found in many consumer products like cookware, food packaging, and stain repellents” (1). Evidence suggests that PFAS chemicals break down slowly in the human body. In turn, much of the PFAS materials remain within the organ system for an extended time, leading to the degradation of human health. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) underwent a report that discovered “certain PFAS can accumulate and stay in the human body for long periods of time. There is evidence that exposure to PFAS can lead to adverse health outcomes in humans. The most-studied PFAS chemicals are PFOA and PFOS. Studies indicate that PFOA and PFOS can cause reproductive and developmental, liver and kidney, and immunological effects in laboratory animals. Both chemicals have caused tumors in animals” (1). 

Figure 1. PFAS Exposure in Relation to Organ Function

Perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) have the chemical capabilities to induce the long-term effects of PFAS, allowing physiological consequences to extend far into adulthood and disrupt proper physiological function. However, to understand the root mechanism behind how PFAS substances can negatively disrupt the body’s organ systems, a discussion of the molecular workings of PFAS from a cellular level is needed.

How Do PFAS Substances Harm Our Bodies?

PFAS substances work to disrupt bodily functions by inhibiting the endocrine receptors. One of the primary ways these synthetic materials aggregate in the human body is by inadvertently causing harm to the male and female reproductive systems. The Endocrine Society explains how PFAS substances can induce “undescended testicles and urethra defects in men and endometriosis and fibroids in women” (5). Additionally, “ovarian cysts have been associated with higher amounts of chemicals such as BPA in the body” (5). Reducing the amount of PFAS in the body can potentially increase fertility and reduce risk of cancer in the body.

An Easy Way To Understand PFAS

Take, for example, this radio analogy in which a radio transceiver receives a particular reception through frequency to help explain the mechanism of PFAS. Endocrine receptors assist in regulating hormone levels; however, endocrine disruptors are responsible for disrupting hormone secretion and chemical signaling that happens throughout the body (2). The National Institute of Health (NIH) explains that “people may be exposed to endocrine disruptors through food and beverages consumed, pesticides applied, and cosmetics used. In essence, your contact with these chemicals may occur through diet, air, skin, and water” (3).

How Much Of PFAS Chemicals Are Considered Unsafe?

“Even low doses of endocrine-disrupting chemicals may be unsafe (3).” 

The most crucial point is that PFAS chemicals are slowing down the same organ systems designed to keep each person alive and well. It is understood that “the body’s normal endocrine functioning involves very small changes in hormone levels, yet we know even these small changes can cause significant developmental and biological effects. This observation leads scientists to think that endocrine-disrupting chemical exposures, even at low amounts, can alter the body’s sensitive systems and lead to health problems” (3). Thus, the impacts of PFAS on the physiological functioning of human beings provide insight into the environmental regulations needed to prevent this public health issue from escalating any further.

5 Most Common Places PFAS Hide

PFAS materials and substances can be found in various ways, including daily foods and household items. According to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), a branch of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the notable products that contain PFAS include “some grease-resistant paper, fast food containers/wrappers, microwave popcorn bags, pizza boxes, and candy wrappers” (4). 

Figure 2. Common Sources of PFAS

The Agency of Toxic Substances and Disease Registry also illustrates that “since 2002, production and use of PFOS and PFOA in the United States have declined. As the use of PFAS has declined, some blood PFAS levels have gone down as well. From 1999 to 2014, blood PFOS levels have reduced by more than 80%. [However], from 1999 to 2014, blood PFOA levels have declined by more than 60%. [And] as PFOS and PFOA are phased out and replaced, people may be exposed to other PFAS” (4). Additional statistics by the CDC note that “in 2008, 2010, and 2014, the Minnesota Department of Health measured blood PFAS levels in people who had been exposed to PFAS in their drinking water before installation of the filtration system. PFOS, PFOA, and PFHxS blood levels went down in long-term residents after a water filtration system was installed” (4). Overall, this indicates that PFAS exposure is unhealthy for the human body. But, most importantly, innovative interventions to reduce PFAS exposure and acute exposure to PFAS are needed to address this health concern adequately. 

How Can We Combat PFAS Exposure?

While it is essential to understand the health impacts of PFAS substances on the body, it is also crucial to comprehend how PFAS are reduced from the body. For example, “EPA has found ways to remove PFAS from drinking water. These effective technologies include activated carbon treatment, ion exchange resins, and high-pressure membranes, like nanofiltration or reverse osmosis” to provide a more filtered circulatory system (4). Additionally, the Environmental Protection Agency also illustrates that “granular activated carbon (GAC) chemicals, like PFAS, stick to the small pieces of carbon as the water passes through the pump” (4). It also suggests that “chemicals stick to the beads and are removed as the water passes through. [Furthermore], nanofiltration and reverse osmosis [allows for a] process where water is pushed through a membrane with small pores. The membrane acts like a wall that can stop chemicals and particles from passing into drinking water” (4). Understanding the process of removing any toxic residue from water and the human body is crucial to educating the public on ways to advocate against PFSA use in daily life.

What Are The Next Steps?

To reiterate, one of the most pressing public health issues of this century is PFAS exposure. Derived from synthetic materials that degrade our bodily systems through endocrine disruptors, PFAS compounds continue to inhibit normal physiological function. Looking to the future, more effective interventions centered on increased education of PFAS exposure and its harms are essential to reducing health morbidity moving forward. 

 

References

1. US EPA, O. (2016, March 30). Basic Information on PFAS [Overviews and Factsheets]. https://www.epa.gov/pfas/basic-information-pfas

2. US EPA, O. (2018, November 19). Treating PFAS in Drinking Water [Overviews and Factsheets]. https://www.epa.gov/pfas/treating-pfas-drinking-water

3. Endocrine Disruptors. (n.d.). National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. Retrieved October 1, 2021, from https://www.niehs.nih.gov/health/topics/agents/endocrine/index.cfm 

4. PFAS chemical exposure | ATSDR. (n.d.). Retrieved October 1, 2021, from https://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/pfas/health-effects/exposure.html

5. Impact of EDCs on Reproductive Systems. (n.d.). Retrieved October 17, 2021, from https://www.endocrine.org/topics/edc/what-edcs-are/common-edcs/reproduction

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