How can we win against the PFAS challenge?

The problem of contamination by per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) has become increasingly important across Europe, including in countries such as France, Germany, the Netherlands and Switzerland. These chemicals, often referred to as “perpetual chemicals” due to their longevity in the environment and resistance to degradation, are associated with various health risks and environmental problems. The European Environment Agency highlights the widespread presence of PFAS in the environment from a range of sources, including industrial processes, consumer products and common waste disposal practices.

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The health-related costs of PFAS exposure in Europe are estimated at €52-84 billion annually1 , a figure that is likely to be underestimated given the limited scope of health effects and the specific PFAS considered in these estimates.

1 Text from 2019 !!! FULLTEXT01.pdf (diva-portal.org) Nordic Council of Ministers Nordens Hus Ved Stranden 18 DK-1061 Copenhagen

PFAS contamination occurs through various routes, including industrial emissions, the use of firefighting foams, consumer products and the disposal of PFAS-containing materials. Industrial sites, particularly those involved in the manufacture and application of PFAS, are significant sources of pollution. This has led to PFAS being detected in air, soil, water and living organisms across Europe, with areas close to industrial sites, airports and military bases being particularly contaminated. The total number of sites with potential PFAS emissions in Europe is estimated at around 100,000 .2

2 https://www.eea.europa.eu/publications/emerging-chemical-risks-in-europe

Efforts to manage and mitigate PFAS contamination are challenging due to the persistence of the chemicals and the complexity of their environmental and health impacts. New PFAS compounds and their degradation products continue to be detected in the environment, complicating efforts to understand and reduce exposure risks. Despite regulatory efforts, including proposed limits for PFAS in drinking water, and the categorisation of certain PFAS as priority hazardous substances under EU directives, these chemicals are an ongoing concern due to their widespread properties and their ability to accumulate in the environment and in the human body.

Human exposure to PFAS occurs through various routes, including ingestion of contaminated water and food, use of consumer products and occupational exposure. PFAS accumulate in the human body over time, with evidence of bioaccumulation and transfer from mother to child. National biomonitoring studies in Europe have documented PFAS exposure in the population, with men generally having higher levels of PFAS in their bodies. Although a decrease in concentrations of some regulated PFAS has been observed in recent years, the presence of novel PFAS and the continued use of PFAS in various applications continue to pose a risk.

The situation in France, Germany, the Netherlands and Switzerland reflects the general trend of PFAS contamination in Europe. These countries, with their industrial activities, military and civilian use of firefighting foams and the presence of PFAS in consumer products and waste streams, face the challenge of identifying, managing and mitigating PFAS pollution. Compounding the challenge is the need for comprehensive monitoring and regulation and the development of effective remediation and remediation strategies to address the legacy of PFAS contamination.

Combating PFAS contamination requires a multi-faceted approach due to their widespread use and environmental persistence. Here are some strategies being pursued to address the challenges posed by PFAS:

Regulatory measures

  • Restriction of use: Introduction of strict regulations to limit the production and use of PFAS in consumer products, industrial applications and fire-fighting foams. The European Union, for example, is on the way to a comprehensive restriction of the non-essential use of PFAS.
  • Setting standards: Establish and enforce environmental standards and guidelines for PFAS in water, soil and air to protect human health and the environment. This includes setting limits for PFAS in drinking water, as already in place in some US states and proposed at EU level.

Depollution technologies

  • Water treatment: Modern water treatment processes such as granular activated carbon (GAC), ion exchange resins and high pressure membranes (reverse osmosis) are effective in removing PFAS from the water supply.
  • Soil remediation: Techniques such as soil washing, stabilisation and excavation are currently being researched to remove or contain PFAS in contaminated soils. However, these methods are still under development and can be costly.

Prevention and control

  • Alternative materials: Researching and promoting the use of safer alternatives to PFAS in products and industrial processes. This includes the development of non-fluorinated chemicals for use in consumer products such as textiles, food packaging and firefighting foams.
  • Best practices in industry: Encourage industry to adopt best practices for dealing with PFAS, including reducing emissions, improving waste management and conducting regular environmental monitoring.

Political measures and community actionstionen

  • Raising awareness and educating the public: Raising awareness of the risks of PFAS and encouraging consumer choices that avoid products containing PFAS can increase demand for safer alternatives.
  • Community involvement: Involving the affected communities in decision-making processes and remediation measures to ensure that their concerns and needs are taken into account.

Research and innovation

  • Environmental monitoring: Expand monitoring programmes to better understand the distribution of PFAS in the environment and identify highly contaminated sites.
  • Health research: Support epidemiological and toxicological research to better understand the health effects of exposure to PFAS and to develop regulatory standards.
  • Technological innovation: Investment in research and development for new remediation technologies and materials that can replace PFAS in various applications.

In tackling the complex and persistent challenge of PFAS contamination, the way forward requires not only strong regulatory action and community engagement, but also the relentless search for new, innovative and effective technological solutions. The fight against these “perennial chemicals” emphasises the need for concerted action that harnesses scientific research, technological advances and the expertise of environmental professionals.

In this context, GAIA Conseils, a Swiss research bureau, wants to support research and bring it to the public domain. With its focus on developing technical solutions to environmental challenges, GAIA Conseils represents the kind of expertise and innovative thinking that is essential to tackling the PFAS crisis. By supporting projects aimed at developing advanced remediation technologies, we can contribute valuable knowledge and skills that can accelerate progress towards effective PFAS management strategies.

Collaboration between regulatory agencies, research institutions, affected communities and specialised engineering firms like ours is critical. Through these partnerships, we can hope to advance our understanding of PFAS behaviour in the environment, improve detection methods and removal, and ultimately protect public health and the ecosystem from their effects.

The way to a comprehensive solution to the PFAS problem will undoubtedly be long and complex, but with persistent effort and collaboration, we can make significant progress in reducing their presence in the environment and mitigating their impact on human health and the environment. The question is not whether we can tackle the PFAS problem, but how quickly and effectively we can mobilise the resources, knowledge and technologies at our disposal to do so.

Other sources:

Spatial distribution and distribution behaviour of selected poly- and perfluoroalkyl substances in freshwater ecosystems: A nationwide study in France – ScienceDirect

Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) – ECHA (europa.eu)

Interactive map: PFAS contamination crisis: New data shows 5,021 sites in 50 states (ewg.org)

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