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What Are Forever Chemical

The News

  • A recent study published in Environment Science and Technology has found that rainwater from many places across the globe is contaminated with “per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances” (PFAs), which are called “forever chemicals”.
  • These chemicals are called “forever chemicals” because of their tendency to stick around in the atmosphere, rainwater and soil for long periods of time.
  • Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances” (PFAs) are man-made chemicals used to make nonstick cookware, water-repellent clothing, stain-resistant fabrics, cosmetics, firefighting forms and many other products that resist grease, water and oil.
  • PFAs can migrate to the soil, water and air during their production and use. Since most PFAs do not break down, they remain in the environment for long periods of time. Some of these PFAs can build up in people and animals if they are repeatedly exposed to the chemicals.

  • The study published in Env & science analysed Perfluoroalkyl acids (PFAAs) like
    • Perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS)
    • Perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA)
    • Perfluorohexanesulfonic acid (PFHxS)
    • Perfluorononanoic acid (PFNA)) in various global environmental media (i.e., rainwater, soils, and surface waters)
  • The study concluded that levels of PFOA and PFOS in rainwater greatly exceed US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Lifetime Drinking Water Health Advisory levels.

Is it harmful?

  • United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) lists a variety of health risks that are attributed to PFA exposure which include
    • Decreased fertility
    • Hindered Development in children
    • Interference with body hormones
    • Increased cholesterol levels and
    • Increased risk of some cancers
  • Recent research has also revealed that long-term low-level exposure to certain PFAs can make it difficult for humans to build antibodies after being vaccinated against various diseases.

So what… India is safe?

  • Although the recently published research did not include studies of samples collected in India but the nature of PFAs and the wide geographical breadth of samples can be used to extrapolated to India as well.
  • In fact, there needs to be a separate study in India with samples collected across states to check PFA levels.

Can we remove them?

  • There is no known method that can extract and remove PFAs from the atmosphere itself but there are many effective albeit expensive, methods like filtration through activated carbon that can be used to remove PFA from rainwater collected through various rainwater harvesting methods.
  • There are other methods employed like incineration or breaking PFA in Plasma reactors but these are very expensive & complicated methods.
  • The biggest difficulty in destroying a PFA compounds is mainly due to many carbon-fluorine bonds, which organic chemists say are one of the srongest bonds.

Silver lining…

  • The scientists have discovered a way to disintegrate two concentrated, toxic forms of PFAS into smaller, innocuous compounds that decompose using low heat, a solvent, and sodium hydroxide.
  • The method is dubbed as simple and inexpensive and works on two major categories of PFAS permeating the environment today
    • Perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA)
    • Perfluorohexanesulfonic acid (PFHxS)

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