Recently in both Australia and America serious pressure has been put on Governments to set stricter regulations for man-made chemicals known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) to protect public health and the environment.

This comes after recent research showed that exposure to PFAS chemicals can lead to adverse human health effects, and AVADA Environmental would like to raise the debate on whether the UK and Ireland should follow in the footsteps of other countries and review regulations.

What are per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances?

PFAS is a category of man-made chemicals that have been used in industry and consumer products worldwide since the 1950s.

  • PFAS do not occur naturally, but are widespread in the environment.
  • PFAS are found in people, wildlife, and fish all over the world.
  • Some PFAS can stay in people’s bodies a long time.
  • Some PFAS do not break down easily in the environment.

Perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA or C8) and perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS) are two common examples of PFAS. PFOA and PFOS have been used to make carpets, clothing, fabrics for furniture, paper packaging for food, and other materials (e.g. cookware) that are resistant to water, grease or stains. They are also used for firefighting at air-fields and in a number of industrial processes.

How can I be exposed to PFAS?

PFAS are man-made, so there are no natural sources in the environment. However, PFAS can be found near areas where they are manufactured or where products containing PFAS are often used.

PFAS contamination can be found in drinking water, soil, food, indoor dust and workplaces. Most non-worker exposures occur through drinking contaminated water or eating food that contains PFAS.

Although some types of PFAS are no longer used, some products may still contain PFAS:

  • Food packaging materials
  • Stain resistant carpet treatments
  • Paints, varnishes, and sealants
  • Firefighting foam

How can PFAS affect my health?

There is evidence that exposure to PFAS can lead to adverse health outcomes in humans. If humans, or animals, ingest PFAS (by eating or drinking food or water that contain PFAS), the PFAS are absorbed, and can accumulate in the body. PFAS stay in the human body for long periods of time. As people get exposed to PFAS from different sources over time, the level of PFAS in their bodies may increase to the point where they suffer from adverse health effects.

Studies indicate that PFOA and PFOS can cause reproductive and developmental, liver and kidney, and immunological effects in laboratory animals. Both chemicals have caused tumours in animal studies. The most consistent findings from human epidemiology studies are increased cholesterol levels among exposed populations, with more limited findings related to:

  • Affect growth, learning, and behaviour of infants and older children
  • Lower a woman’s chance of getting pregnant
  • Interfere with the body’s natural hormones
  • Increase cholesterol levels
  • Affect the immune system and
  • Increase the risk of cancer.

Will there be changes made in the future?

Last month the US Government released a report which highlighted the needs for stricter guidelines to limit exposure to the chemicals, because of their links to cancers and other diseases, this report was released after the United States Environmental Protection Agency received almost 30,000 comments from the general public raising concerns on the issue.

The release of this report has now triggered a lot of pressure on the Australian Government from the nation’s mainstream media to reassess the health effects of chemicals that have contaminated the ground water in more than a dozen towns across the country.

The UK has not currently responded to global trends around PFAS, although the direction of travel appears to be clear.  Attention on the issue is only likely to increase, as detections in drinking water above regulatory guidelines are now reported across the world, particularly in the Germany, Scandinavia, as well as the US and Australia.