Persistent pollutants: Where are they? What effects on health? What political response? Everything you need to know about PFAS

Perpetual pollutants called PFAS, massively present in everyday life, through Teflon pans, food packaging, textiles or cars, are coming to the rally this Thursday, April 4. A draft law on limiting the production and sale of products containing it is being discussed in the House of Representatives. Here’s what you need to know about these pollutants.

Are per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, PFAS, or “persistent pollutants” everywhere? Is it possible to do without it? Or get rid of it? Here are the answers to the questions you are asking yourself.

Where are PFAS found?

PFAS have been infiltrating modern life since the 1940s and 1950s. These fluorinated elements are found in sportswear, waterproof fabrics, ski waxes, non-stick pans, food packaging, fire-fighting foams, detergents, cosmetics, medicines, prosthetics, coatings and paints, membranes for air filtration or electrolysis, but also on space probes. hoses or in microelectronics.

There are thousands of them, in gaseous, liquid or solid form. Their resistance to corrosion, heat or light explains their appeal. But once they’re in nature, they don’t break down.

The most dangerous are “the smallest, most mobile”, explains Mehran Mostafavi, Scientific Deputy Director of CNRS Chemistry. Polymeric PFASs, inert and stable, such as those used for non-stick pan coatings, are not problematic under normal conditions of use, according to the researcher.

“In fact, without overheating the stove, polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE) does not penetrate the body, but its production can create potentially toxic fluorinated surfactants,” adds Pierre Labadie, director of research at the CNRS in environmental chemistry. Likewise, when incinerated or recycled, “there is the potential to generate problematic PFAS.”

What are the health effects?

Although their effects on humans still need to be improved, according to Pierre Labadie, a CNRS chemist and researcher interviewed by Pierre Labadie. Dispatch in 2023 “these compounds have carcinogenic effects in humans”. The scientist also emphasizes their role as “endocrine disruptors that can cause problems with the functioning of the thyroid gland.” “There are also risks of fetal development disorders and interactions with the immune system through altered response to vaccination,” he adds.

Last December, the International Agency for Research on Cancer, part of the WHO, classified the two most common PFASs as “carcinogenic to humans” and “possible carcinogens.” These are perfluorooctanesulfonic acid and perfluorooctanoic acid, both of which have been banned in Europe since 2019 and 2009, respectively.

Is it possible to do without it?

“We have to shake off the idea that eternal pollutants are indispensable,” says Martin Scheringer, professor of environmental chemistry at the Polytechnic of Zurich and president of the International Expert Group on Chemical Pollution (IPCP), which nevertheless highlights the work going on at the European level. aimed at defining the pejorative term “essential use” for PFASs that we cannot live without. “There are applications that we can do without, others for which there are alternatives, it’s very complicated for the pharmaceutical sector,” explains Mehran Mostafavi.

Building on ongoing European work, the French government presented a plan to ban PFAS deliberately added to toys, textiles or cosmetics as soon as possible, deemed unsafe and non-essential, in order to better measure the presence of PFAS in food. air, water, soil and food and reduce releases to the environment.

How are manufacturers responding?

Benoit Lavigne, general delegate of the Federation of Electrical, Electronic and Communications Industries (FIEEC), which represents 6,500 companies, “there will be no energy transition without PFAS”, present in heat pumps or batteries and “wherever there are significant heat exchanges” . “.

“For the uses that expose consumers the most”, the approach “must focus on the replacement” of problematic substances through innovations, “like food contact packaging”, which have just been regulated at European level, believes Magali Smets, CEO of France Chimie, which represents 3000 companies. Assuming the exchange isn’t worse.

The chemical industry wants PFASs to be retained in production processes if “the manufacturer demonstrates that they are used responsibly” for consumers, employees and the environment “especially through water release studies,” Magali Smets points out.

In general, many manufacturers “have already abandoned PFAS or are in the process of doing so,” notes Martin Scheringer.

Where did they replace them?

The OECD has identified 36 PFAS, emulsifiers, stabilizers and water repellents added to cosmetic products. The Association of Manufacturers in the Cosmetics Europe sector pledged in October to replace them by 2026.

The International Ski Federation has banned fluorinated wax at the start of the 2023-2024 season.

In France, “PFAS-free firefighting foams have just been qualified after two years of work with the Ministry of the Environment,” reports Magali Smets. This “French initiative” needs time to adapt to establish itself, as it will be necessary to “flush” the equipment with these foams and define “good practices”.

Can we destroy PFAS?

“The specificity of these molecules is that they represent a very strong bond between a carbon atom and a fluorine atom (…) Four experimental methods have been identified to break this bond,” explains Mehran Mostafavi, from CNRS Chemistry.

An “enzymatic” method developed by biochemists, a method called “sonochemistry” creating bubbles at a very high temperature where the CF bonds break, a “cold plasma” method using an electric arc in a PFAS solution, and a so-called “radiolytic” approach using ionizing radiation. “They have proven their effectiveness,” says Mehran Mostafavi, “now the challenge would be to move to an industrial scale.”

However, for individuals, decontamination of a PFAS-contaminated environment remains very complex and costly, which cannot be done by simple ventilation or cleaning.

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