In a past article, I expressed concerns about per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), being found in rainwater. These chemicals, which are generally used in coatings and products that resist heat, oil, stains, grease, and water, are known as “forever chemicals.” Terrifyingly, this means that these highly toxic fluorinated chemicals don’t break down naturally. They’ve been linked to cancer, reproductive and immune system harm and other diseases.
When these chemicals were found in rainwater globally, I was terrified. Given that PFAS were found in rainwater, we knew a few things: they’re in the oceans, the soil, the food we eat, the air we breathe and inevitably us. It’s now been found, likely as a direct result of being in rainwater in sufficiently high concentrations, that PFAS are now firmly integrated into living systems. Recent research from the Environmental Working Group (EWG) has found that “PFAS likely pose a risk to wildlife everywhere,” as these chemicals are now present everywhere. After cataloging more than 100 studies to locate PFAS worldwide, EWG researchers have updated their PFAS map.
These researchers found several things, each of which is more terrifying than the last. They found that chemical concentrations are so high in freshwater fish that “even infrequent consumption would increase the amount of PFAS in a person.” On the map that the EWG released, it’s also shown that PFAS-tainted animals can be found on every continent. But, by a visibly apparent margin, the United States is leading with scores of dots representing contaminations spread across the nation. Contamination seems to be largely concentrated around the Great Lakes, which is alarming as around 350 million pounds of fish are caught from the Great Lakes every single year.
The nature of chemical contamination is clear: every single last extremity of natural cleanliness on our planet is gone. The question is no longer “what happens if these chemicals get into our food systems,” it has instead become “what are the consequences of these chemicals?” and “What do we do now?”
As for the consequences of our actions, EWG researchers added that “Eating just one PFAS-contaminated freshwater fish per month could be the equivalent of drinking a glass of water with very high levels of PFOS or other forever chemicals.” We already know that these chemicals have noxious effects on humans, causing heart problems, liver problems, decreased responses to vaccinations and more. But what about in animals? If these artificial horrors can wreak havoc on the human body, surely they’ll have negative effects on other organisms too. Unfortunately, PFAS contamination also causes sea turtles (which are already endangered) to have difficulty hatching, tumors in many animals, and has even been shown to have immunological effects in laboratory settings. PFAS also bioaccumulate once they enter into living systems, meaning that they increase in concentration as they move throughout a food chain. That’s particularly bad news for humans, as it means that we’ll be consuming even more of these chemicals in our diets.
But there’s another lingering question about PFAS: what can we do now? The very easily predicted consequences of our actions as a society are coming back to bite us! We poisoned the world with chemicals that will not break down in 1,000 lifetimes, and these chemicals are starting to appear in ways that aren’t favorable for anyone. It’s mentioned that PFAS are being “phased out” in food packaging. That’s not nearly enough. A “Voluntary Phase-Out” has been put in place by the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA), but when have large corporations ever “voluntarily” stopped slowly killing the planet? Especially when the phase-out of these materials is costly and would require supply chain changes, a voluntary switch is nowhere near enough.
There’s no way out of the mess we’ve already made for ourselves. Similarly to climate change, where our planet is already “locked in” for some degree of warming due to stored carbon in the oceans, our planet is also already “locked in” for some degree of ecological destruction to the chemicals we’ve contaminated our environment with. But, again similarly to climate change, the best way to prevent the problem from worsening is by doing everything we can to stop polluting. That means that instead of a “Voluntary Phase-Out,” maybe the FDA should completely ban all of these life-altering chemicals. Any other decision is ecologically and morally reprehensible. We’ve already poisoned our planet, but that doesn’t mean that we have to keep doing it.