PFAS - An exposure we did not choose

A blogpost by Abby Muricho Onencan

After long winters in Europe, I anticipate spending my summer holidays in my motherland - sitting alongside the shores of Lake Victoria, eating fish, while enjoying quality time with family and friends. Nothing compares to a freshly caught tilapia fish, immediately tossed into the frying pan. One summer evening as I relished my meal, an article caught my eye titled Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFASs) in the Ugandan waters of Lake Victoria. My heart skipped a beat. I could hardly believe that the Lake I considered pristine is contaminated.

PFAS or ‘forever chemicals’ is a group of over 4,700 toxic synthetic chemicals, generated by combining carbon and more than two fluorine atoms, to create the strongest, almost indestructible bond in organic chemistry. The researchers found PFASs in the Lake, rivers (Kagera and Sio), and the municipal tap water of Kampala, Jinja and Entebbe. This is an exposure I did not choose. Neither did my family and all residents in the three major Ugandan cities. Suddenly, I felt a deep sense of purpose welling up in me. 10 days later, my passion was seamlessly weaved into my professional research work. Now, I dedicate my time searching for inclusive and sustainable governance solutions to accelerate PFAS-free societal transitions.

Due to their non-stick, waterproof, greaseproof, and stain repellent properties, chemical industries use PFASs to manufacture many consumer and commercial products, including firefighting foams, paints, non-stick cookware, food packaging materials, personal care products, clothing, carpets, even cosmetics. PFASs gets into our blood through contact with these products and via air, or ingestion of contaminated food and drinks. A recent European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) study identified fish (and other sea food) as the number one contributor to PFAS exposure.  Also, EFSA detected PFAS in eggs, meat, fruits, vegetables, and drinking water.

Slow Violence and PFAS adverse effects

PFAS pollution is a slow violence crime - it progressively disempowers and harms victims and the environment, while remaining undetected for years, decades, or even centuries. PFASs build-up in our bodies and the environment has been going on for more than eight decades (since the1930s).

PFAS compounds are more potent than carbon dioxide due to their exceptionally high lifetimes and global warming potentials. The Diakin, Alabama plant’s 2019 annual release of HCFC-22 (used to manufacture food packaging products), was equivalent to greenhouse gas emissions by 125,000 passenger cars. One company’s single-product line invisibly undermined ongoing endeavours by households to invest in electric cars, and concurrently, destroyed the O-zone layer.

PFAS increases the risk of contracting several diseases and robs people of their serenity, fecundity, health, and vitality. The  European Environment Agency (EEA) identified several adverse effects on human health. First, PFAS increases the risk of heart attack or cardiac arrest by elevating cholesterol levels. Second, PFAS is carcinogenic, it increases the risk of developing kidney, and testicular cancer. Third, PFAS has developmental effects on unborn children leading to low birth weight, reduced response to vaccines and a delay in developing mammary glands.  Fourth, PFAS enhances the risk of thyroid disease (hypothyroidism). Finally, PFAS damages the liver. The EEA documented health effects with lower scientific certainty are high blood pressure, ulcerative colitis, low sperm count and mobility, miscarriage, obesity, early onset of puberty, breast cancer and difficulty conceiving.

Daunting ecological and socioeconomic consequences are normally observed within PFAS exposed communities. PFAS emissions through the air, water, and soil leads to contamination, decreased property values and inability to eat from one’s garden. Broken trust between the chemical company and the victims induces feelings of betrayal, anger, frustration, resentment, and distrust. In situations where the government or other agencies did not intervene adequately or on time, victims report secondary victimization, insufficient guidance from government agencies and feelings of isolation. Often, victims have no clear information on who should be financially responsible for medical bills, alternative water supply, remediation, filtration, and blood testing. Finally, physical damage eventually occurs, involving injury, chronic illness, reduced productivity, or even death. Trauma increases when no one recognizes PFAS environmental harm as a crime and the affected persons as 'victims.' PFAS pollution is sometimes classified as a ‘victimless crime,’ leaving victims with feelings of helplessness, while they continue to experience visible, tangible, quantifiable and irrefutable harm.

Due to the severity of the consequences of PFAS pollution, European countries plan to significantly restrict the use of PFAS, under the Chemicals Strategy for Sustainability. The Netherlands, Germany, Sweden, Denmark, and Norway are preparing a dossier for the “restriction on manufacture, placing on the market and use of PFAS”. They plan to submit the dossier by January 13, 2023, to the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA). Prior to that, in September 2021, the European Union (EU) decided to progressively ban 200 PFAS, with a start date of February 2023. This year, ECHA is developing a dossier to restrict PFAS in firefighting foam and revising the EU regulation on Food Contact Materials (FCMs).

Discontinuation of PFAS use in The Netherlands

By 2050, the Netherlands must phase out all non-essential uses of PFAS, to comply with the EU Chemicals Strategy for Sustainability. With over 2,000 chemical industries, ten Dutch water companies, 344 municipalities, and more than 17 million residents, this is an immense challenge. There are ongoing initiatives at the macro-level, meso-level, and micro-level to address PFAS pollution.

Previous governmental (including EU) approaches to address PFAS pollution have so far been technocratic. These macro-level interventions focus on exploring safe food or water intake levels, safe worker exposure levels, safer PFAS-free substitutes, and innovative remediation technologies to counter PFAS environmental pollution.

In the past, technocratic approaches enabled companies to continue using PFAS while waiting for scientific clarity. In effect, precautionary measures were postponed, while corporate harm persisted. Also, continued focus on technocratic approaches favours chemical manufacturing companies due to the lack of a level playing field. During their operations, PFAS chemical industries commissioned scientific studies on innovative remediation technologies and PFAS substitutes. Thus, emphasis on technocratic solutions places chemical industries on a pedestal, as experts – rectifying that which they have caused. For instance, in the Netherlands water companies perceive new water purification techniques as costly and may take a long time to be developed. Whereas, DuPont / Chemours (PFAS manufacturing company) positioned itself as a global leader in innovative water solutions and recently acquired a company specialising in “closed-circuit reverse osmosis (CCRO).” PFAS chemical industries expertise is needed when seeking viable water purification solutions. Notwithstanding, governments should approach such public-private partnerships with caution, within the broader context of remediation - where victims do not pay costs, through increased utility bills.

At the meso-level, companies struggle to change their business models and finding markets for greener solutions. A 2021 PFAS companies survey identified four key PFAS-free transition barriers. The number one barrier according to 71% of the respondents was lack of PFAS-free alternatives. The next three obstacles were “cost of alternatives (43%), lack of knowledge (43%), and inadequate performance of alternatives (29%).” Transitioning to PFAS-free products requires concerted efforts, where companies, consumers, the government, and the EU work together to find viable options.

At the micro-level, residents in the Netherlands need to start buying PFAS-free products. In some cases, it may mean spending more for greener alternatives. There is little information to help consumers transition towards PFAS-free products. The switch to greener alternatives, therefore, poses obstacles for households: uncertainty, investment, and inconvenience. Most consumers lack the capability (e.g., reliable information on PFAS-free products or financial means), opportunity (e.g., education or tax incentives for environmentally friendly products) or motivation to make the transition.

Communities near the chemical industries face more restrictions. The government recently advised residents in three municipalities not to eat vegetables from their garden. Learning that their soil was polluted, the community group De Sliedrechtse actiegroep “Gezondheid voor Alles,” agreed to deposit buckets of soil, every Saturday, outside the DuPont/Chemours gate, until their issues were addressed. The 5th of March 2022 marked their 100th anniversary. The group has now demonstrated every Saturday, without fail, for over two years. When I encounter such situations, instinctively, I reiterate King Edward VIII’s words: “something must be done!”

From PFAS-contagion to PFAS-free ‘Blue Zones’ 

The PFAS dark cloud has a silver lining. It is a cloud that respects no boundaries – contaminating unborn children through the placenta, and in later years through breast milk, water, food, air, and skin contact. Though PFAS exposure is more contagious than COVID, I often stumble into silver linings - PFAS-free products, food packages, water purification projects, soil remediation research, PFAS resources for retailers.  And the list keeps growing.

As I sit back in my rocking chair, staring up at the sky, I wonder if there are PFAS-free ‘Blue Zones.’ Enclaves where the water, air and soil are pristine, intact, natural, and unadulterated. If they do exist, I highly recommend a study to document the lived (subjective) experiences of people and spaces that resisted PFAS contagion. It is in my bucket list of destinations for conducting ethnographic research, while enjoying fried tilapia fish, with no fear of contamination.

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