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Frank A. Bures: What are PFAS chemicals?

Frank A. Bures: What are PFAS chemicals?

From the COLLECTION: PFAS -- 'forever' chemicals -- in the news in 2021 series
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Happy Earth Day to all of you. Earth Day began in 1970 to raise awareness of the need for environmental protection. Today it is more relevant than ever.

For this year’s Earth Day column I will attempt a simplified explanation of what PFAS chemicals are. This seemed appropriate after seeing newspaper articles with the headlines “Regulators find ‘forever chemicals’ in 60 closed landfills,” “MPCA (Minnesota Pollution Control Agency) to pursue PFAS studies” and “(Winona) Landfill PFAS levels believed not to be a concern.”

In addition, the 3M manufacturing plant in Cottage Grove was sued by the state of Minnesota over its decades-long PFAS contamination of the area’s water supply by carelessly dumping waste from PFAS manufacture in the ground water supply. In February 2018, 3M settled for $850 million.

The abbreviation PFAS stands for per- or polyflouroalkyl substances, more easily called “forever chemicals” (FCs). They are chemically synthetic compounds of carbon chains with fluorine atoms bound to them in varying lengths. This chemical bond is one of the strongest known, and prevents the breakdown of the FCs for indefinite periods in the environment and in us. Hence, the term FCs. According to different references there are either over 3,000 or at least 4,730 or over 5,000 different FCs. You choose, but it’s an awful (in several senses) lot.

The primary PFAS in the product Teflon is polytetraflouroethylene or PTFE. Another is the infamous perflourooctanic acid (PFOA) or C8 because has an 8 carbon chain. The PTFE discovery was from a chemical accident. In 1938 at the Chemours Jackson Lab, connected to part of DuPont Company, both in New Jersey, chemist Dr. Roy J. Plunkett was trying to find an alternative refrigerant gas. He stored the experimental gas, tetraflouroethylene, in small cylinders that were frozen and then compressed. When they later opened them, no gas came out. They split the cylinder and found a waxy, white solidified concoction, which came to be known as PTFE. It was very slippery, and it resisted corrosion, water, oil and heat.

The research was shifted to DuPont, where it later became Teflon, from the syllables tetra- and flouro-. It began the non-stick chemical uses of so many FCs. So many of these FCs have been developed for use in non-stick cookware, grease resistant and water proof coatings on food packaging (like popcorn bags, take-out pizza boxes and fast food wrappers), coated paper products, waterproof or water resistant and stain resistant textiles (like clothing, shoes, upholstery and carpet), cosmetic and personal care products, industrial and household cleaning products, floor/car/boat waxes, engineering coatings used in semi-conductor production, metal plating and finishing, etching of metals, plastics, and glass, plastics, resins, and rubber products, surface coating, paint varnish, and inks, cable and wire insulation for electronics, bio-solids, and aqueous film-forming foam used to extinguish flammable liquid fires. That’s all.

Ninety-eight to 99%, of us humans have measurable levels of PFAS in our blood. It’s no wonder why. Initially, FCs were thought to be inert. Over time their presence has been associated with many diverse medical problems. These include thyroid disease, increased cholesterol, breast cancer, liver damage, inflammatory bowel disease, testicular cancer, increased time to pregnancy, high blood pressure in later pregnancy, reduced reactions to vaccines (?!), hormone disruption leading to rapid declines in human fertility, and a host of intrauterine issues.

The lines of evidence are all indirect to date with no clear cause mechanism established for any disease. The number of studies actually done by DuPont and 3M over the years identifying health issues have been suppressed, according to an aggressive environmental group, the Environmental Working Group.

The presence of FCs in almost all water supplies is the greatest concern. One major source seems to be the foam firefighting mixture created to put out petroleum and flammable liquid fires after the deadly fire on a U.S. Navy aircraft carrier, the USS Forrestal, in 1967. Contaminated ground water sources around production plants like DuPont’s Parkersburg, West Virginia, plant and 3M’s Cottage Grove plant have engendered huge lawsuits and settlements, like the 2018 one above. The U.S. now has quit making PFOA and PFOS the two most notorious FCs, but they can still be in things imported. The entire medical and contamination scenarios are in evolution. The EPA has yet to establish truly “safe levels” of FCs in water.

More chapters in the PFAS tale are being and will be written. This may give you a slight understanding of what you are reading and hearing about. Sometimes what looks so new, innovative and promising may have a dark side. The main protagonist in this play is DuPont, who in 1935 promoted their slogan “Better things for Better Living … Through Chemistry,” which later became “Better living through chemistry.” This even became the title of a 2014 movie with Jane Fonda. DuPont dropped it in 1982. Maybe the chemistry that transforms chocolate and barley into consumable products does make for a little better living. Make every day Earth Day.

Dr. Bures, a semi-retired dermatologist, since 1978 has worked Winona, La Crosse, Viroqua, and Red Wing. He also plays clarinet in the Winona Municipal Band and a couple dixieland groups. And he does enjoys a good pun.


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