Scientists have detailed more than 200 uses of PFAS chemicals in 64 industrial areas, including mining, book conservation, plastics production, photography, printing, watchmaking, car manufacturing, air conditioning, fingerprinting, and particle physics. Many of the uses, which are laid out in an article published in the journal Environmental Science: Processes & Impacts, were previously unknown.
PFOA became famous for its use in Teflon, after the chemical leaked from a DuPont plant that made the coating for pots and pans into drinking water in West Virginia and Ohio. Then came the realization that PFOA, along with the closely related compound PFOS, was also in firefighting foam widely used by the military. Eventually it became clear that these compounds, along with others in the same class known as PFAS, were in microwave popcorn bags, pizza boxes, waterproof fabrics, carpeting, and dental floss. Still, the question of how these chemicals made their way from this handful of products into the bodies of most people on earth remained. The new paper sheds light on that mystery by dramatically expanding the understanding of the chemicals’ industrial purposes — and by providing the structures, uses, and unique identifying numbers for more than 1,400 individual compounds used in everyday products.
This information, which is often fiercely guarded by the companies that make and use PFAS, can be difficult or impossible to obtain. Juliane Glüge, a senior researcher at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich and the study’s principal author, spent almost a year digging up details about the uses of PFAS in patents, scientific papers, regulatory agencies, information from manufacturers, obscure databases, and even reporting by The Intercept. The result is an incredibly detailed picture of the extent to which PFAS chemicals, which have been shown to cause a range of health problems and persist indefinitely in the environment, have become virtually omnipresent.
Among Glüge’s surprising discoveries was that PFAS compounds are used to coat the blades of windmills and the strings of guitars, lubricate pianos during tuning, stimulate oil wells, and coat the inside of oil pipelines. They are used in solar energy collectors and photovoltaic cells, brake fluid, pharmaceutical packaging, and windows in greenhouses; in some ammunition to decrease the likelihood of unintended explosions; in filters used by wineries to strain wine before it’s bottled; and in glass to make it resistant to fingerprints, according to the new paper. Ironically — given that the chemicals are toxic and have come to contaminate water around the world — PFAS chemicals also play a role in water treatment and purification.
“It is the best inventory to date,” David Andrews, senior scientist at the Environmental Working Group, said of the paper. Andrews himself has spent time going through trademark applications and cataloguing the PFAS chemicals he finds. “This expands on that work by a factor of 10.”
In addition to PFAS’s industrial uses, the paper also identified dozens of common consumer and athletic products that contain the chemicals, including lubricants for bicycles, coatings for tennis rackets, ski wax, fishing lines, some wooden boats, and sail covers. The compounds are also components of some rock-climbing ropes, a discovery that led one outdoor equipment company to recently launch a brand of PFAS-free ropes.
While it was previously known that personal care products contain PFAS, Glüge and her colleagues documented their presence in an incredibly wide range of cosmetics, including body lotion, body oil, foundation, concealer, blush, cuticle treatment, eye cream, eye pencil, eye shadow, brow products, hair creams, conditioners, anti-frizz cream, lip liner, makeup remover, anti-aging cream, mascara, moisturizer, bars of soap, shampoo, nail polish, nail strengthener, powder, hair spray and mousse, lip balm, lipstick, skin scrub, shaving cream, and sunscreen. The scientists also found one PFAS compound in hand sanitizer.
Plastics and rubber production and the electronic industry accounted for the greatest amount of PFAS used in Sweden, Finland, Norway, and Denmark between 2000 and 2017, according to the paper. The author tried to obtain the amounts of various PFAS manufactured and imported in the U.S. but was told that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency would not make that available because companies had claimed it as confidential business information, or CBI.
Kyla Bennett encountered a similar problem when she tried to get information on whether PFAS were used in pesticides. The question occurred to her because she lives in a town where the chemicals have been detected in drinking water. “I just couldn’t understand why so many towns, including my own in southeastern Massachusetts, had contaminated water,” said Bennett, who is science policy director for Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility. “We aren’t near an airport, a military base, or a fire-training facility. Yet we had PFAS in our drinking water wells.”
Bennett knew that her town was aerially sprayed with pesticides, but when she asked both the EPA and pesticide manufacturers about whether Anvil 10+10, the pesticide used in her town, contained PFAS, she couldn’t get a straight answer and repeatedly ran into confidentiality claims. So she decided to get the pesticide tested through a commercial laboratory. The Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection later did its own testing. The results, released yesterday, showed that the Anvil 10+10, which is aerially sprayed in 25 states, including New York, Florida, and Massachusetts, contained eight PFAS chemicals, among them PFOA and PFOS.
Bennett said she suspects that Anvil 10+10, the only product the group had chemically analyzed, might not be alone in containing PFAS. “Given the fact that it is the only one we tested and it had so many different PFAS in it, I fear it’s just the tip of the iceberg,” she said.
The Environmental Science paper identified seven compounds that were used as active ingredients in pesticides (including one used widely in Brazil) and five others that were added to the products as “inert ingredients.”
Glüge described the massive document as “a work in progress” and said she welcomed the input of other scientists who can add new compounds to it, clarify the exact purposes of chemicals already on the list, and report on whether some of the uses may have already been discontinued. She also said she was hopeful that it will spark discussion about replacing these compounds with others that don’t last indefinitely in the environment.
“The first step would be to look at the ones we think are nonessential,” said Glüge. “For instance, there are already PFAS-free bicycle lubricants on the market. So why do we need one with PFAS in it?”
The European Union is asking similar questions. Noting that PFAS “contamination in some cases may be irreversible, making fundamental natural resources such as soil and water no longer usable,” the European Commission has suggested both regulating the chemicals as a class and prohibiting all but essential uses of the chemicals.
In the U.S., limiting the use of these quickly proliferating chemicals may be trickier. After the Trump administration failed to carry out promised steps to limit and regulate PFAS, President-elect Biden has promised fast action. But he also placed Michael McCabe, who oversaw DuPont’s successful effort to dodge regulation of PFOA and introduce a similarly toxic replacement PFAS compound, on his EPA transition team.
“Biden’s got his work cut out for him,” Bennett said. “They need to regulate PFAS as a class. They need to get the approval of these new PFAS under control. And they need to close the loophole of proprietary ingredients being withheld as CBI.”
Because the EPA has allowed the chemicals into so many products and allowed companies to keep their presence confidential, “the burden of finding chemicals and proving them guilty often falls on small NGOs like PEER or citizens who are fighting for their lives,” said Bennett. “And that’s not right.”