A group of scientists has warned that a common chemical found almost everywhere has shown itself to be "one of the most toxic substances ever identified" and could have serious effects on both human health and the environment.
In a release published in Science Daily, the Geological Society of America announced that tackling Per-/poly-fluroalkyl substances, or PFAS, will be the main focus during the Geological Society of America's 2020 Annual Meeting. The organization hopes to alert the population about the dangers of what they have called a "forever chemical."
One of the main challenges is that PFAS are almost ubiquitous in modern life and are often used in industrial settings. This class of substances, which includes more than 3000 compounds, are used in goods such as car wax, firefighting foam, and fast-food wrappers. Moreover, scientists warn that they have only begun to scratch the surface of how damaging PFAS are, especially since they don't degrade like other materials.
"It's almost like armor...we don't have any evidence of degradation of these compounds," explained Matt Reeves, a professor at Western Michigan University, adding that their bonds are "among the strongest in all of chemistry."
Currently, high PFAS levels in humans have been linked to higher rates of cancer, hormonal imbalances, and disruptive immune responses. Even more worrisome, researchers have claimed that PFAS are harmful at concentrations in the parts per trillion -- meaning only small amounts could cause serious health damage.
Federal standards established by the Environmental Protection Agency in 2016 decreed the safe upper limit to be 70 parts per trillion (ppt). The upper limit for arsenic, in comparison, is 10 parts per billion -- meaning a person can tolerate more arsenic than they can PFAS.
Already, high levels of the dangerous chemical have been discovered in the environment.
"PFAS were found to be present at almost every site that was sampled, whether it was a metropolitan area, near an industrial source, or out in a rural area," claimed Mark Brusseau of the University of Arizona. "[They are] even in some very remote mountain areas."
"PFAS don't discriminate," added Steve Sliver, a member of Michigan's PFAS response team. "The sources are pretty much everywhere."
PFAS are currently regulated at the state level -- meaning that some states have been tackling the issue while others have not. Michigan has been particularly proactive, especially after finding high concentrations of the chemical in fish from a popular lake in the southern part of the state.
Researchers have lamented that options for ridding the environment of the chemical are limited, and that the main method at present is to flush them out.