My friend and co-conspirator Marianne Peters runs the Marshall County Recycle Depot in Plymouth, IN. (Remember… they have solar too!) She writes a regular column for our local newspaper, The Pilot News, which I always love to see! This one was so good (and with a relatively new topic; you may remember this previous post on the subject) that I asked her permission to re-post here.
I’d like to think I have the milk of human kindness flowing through my veins.
Turns out I might have a few other substances flowing there as well.
In 1946, scientists invented two chemicals that people loved from the get-go. We know them by their brand names: Teflon and Scotchguard. Teflon, that miraculous non-stick coating, made it possible to cook sticky foods with ease—no more eggs glued to the skillet. Scotchguard kept the stains off our new white Keds. Teflon and Scotchguard are easier to pronounce than per- or poly-fluoroalkyl, so-called “long chain” chemicals referred to collectively as PFAS.
I recently attended a webinar hosted by the Solid Waste Association of North America (SWANA) that addressed PFAS. Why would the waste industry be interested in these chemicals? Two reasons: they persist, and they accumulate. Most of us carry PFAS around in our tissues, where they have been stored up for years. Disposing of them has become a major topic of conversation for waste companies as well as the federal government. Because PFAS are so persistent, they are tough to get rid of. For instance, burying PFAS-contaminated soil in a landfill might be a temporary answer, but the chemicals escape through the liquids pumped off the landfill and eventually end up in groundwater. The U. S. no longer makes some of the more dangerous PFAS, but we import them into the country through manufactured products. We still make other types of PFAS. Both the public and the private sector agree that PFAS need managed for the sake of our public health, despite the usual back and forth about regulation.
PFAS are found in manufacturing processes, but they are also found in our homes in food packaging, nonstick products, cleaning products, pizza boxes, and the packaging that fast food comes in. Stain-resistant coatings on carpets, clothing, and furniture contain PFAS. They also contaminate soil and water in places near manufacturers that uses PFAS, and in turn they are absorbed by food crops or fish—food sources for us. These tiny exposures seem incidental, but PFAS hang around in our bodies for years, eventually accumulating enough to be a health concern. They are especially dangerous for babies and young children who are still developing. PFAS have even been found in the bloodstreams of newborn infants.
So, what can these chemicals do to us? Scientists agree that with long-term exposure, they can raise our cholesterol levels, which leads to other health issues. There is less evidence, but still concern among the scientific community that PFAS could affect our liver or kidney function. They could also disrupt our endocrine systems—most dangerous for young children.
Humans made these things. I’m sure it seemed like a good idea at the time.
People most exposed to PFAS tend to be people who work directly with these chemicals in manufacturing as well as people who live in “fenceline” communities near manufacturing corridors. This raises environmental justice questions as well as health questions. Workers may not know they are exposed. Many fenceline community residents tend to be lower on the socioeconomic ladder and already have increased exposure to pollution. PFAS just add to that burden.
We can take steps to reduce the influence of PFAS in our lives. (The longer I live, the more I realize the things that might seem to make my life easier might also kill me!) Non-stick pans contain PFAS—I try to replace mine as soon as the finish starts to deteriorate. I have also embraced cooking with cast-iron and stainless-steel pans. Microwave popcorn is delicious, but the packaging contains PFAS—use oil or an air-popper instead. Fast food wrappers, baked goods, and pizza boxes contain PFAS, and that stuff isn’t good for me anyway, so I limit going out and cook at home. I try to wear mostly natural fiber clothing that’s not treated for stains and wrinkles, and since I hate ironing, my look is fashionably rumpled.
Want more protection from PFAS? Find our what your state or federal lawmakers think about public health policy dealing with PFAS. Ask them to sign onto legislation that prioritizes public health. It will take more than good intentions to avoid these forever chemicals.