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How harmful PFAS can impact our health

In the wake of SARS-CoV-2, the subject of antibodies is receiving a great deal of attention. Many people are getting tested to see whether they have antibodies, and we are all hoping for a vaccine. However, the drinking water in half of all municipalities in Sweden contains highly fluorinated substances that can impair the immune system's ability to produce these very antibodies. There is a great need for PFAS substitutes.

PFAS stands for per- and polyfluorinated alkyl substances, which encompass almost 8,000 different highly fluorinated chemically produced substances. Today, various PFAS are used in many consumer products, such as to repel water, dirt and oil. PFAS are used in surface treatments for clothes, shoes and food packaging, as well as in firefighting foam, ski wax, beauty products, furniture upholstery and electronics.

The different PFAS have different properties and behave differently in both nature and the human body. Two of these substances, PFOS and PFOA, are classified as endocrine disruptors that affect reproduction and are suspected carcinogens. Moreover, these two substances appear to impair the immune system's ability to produce antibodies.

– "Studies on animals have shown that PFOA and PFOS impair the response to vaccination, and studies in the Faroe Islands and Germany have shown that children's ability to produce antibodies following vaccination is inversely proportional to the amount of PFAS in their blood," says Tove Mallin, a researcher and project manager in the safety research department at RISE.

Accumulate in nature

Since PFAS are non-biodegradable, they accumulate in nature and elevated levels of PFAS have been measured in the drinking water of 144 Swedish municipalities. According to EU regulations, PFOA may no longer be manufactured or put on the market, not even as a component of another substance. Sweden and several other countries are also pushing for the regulation of PFAS as a group. Parallel to this, the need remains for substances equally effective as PFAS but without the toxicity.

– "Some PFAS use is essential, such as in firefighting foams to deal with various kinds of liquid fires, but there's also non-essential use, such as in non-stick frying pans and ski wax. When it comes to non-essential use, RISE is working with industry to develop environmentally friendly alternatives," says Tove.

Innovation project to find alternatives

This is being done within the framework of an innovation project called POPFREE, which aims to find suitable alternatives to PFAS and to promote their use in consumer products. The project is being conducted in partnership with paper, textile, leather, cosmetic, ski wax, firefighting foam and film-forming product manufacturers, with RISE acting as the coordinating partner.

– "POPFREE is working towards a change in attitudes, to make PFAS-free products the natural choice," says Lisa Skedung, project manager for POPFREE.

De nya alternativen måste vara hållbara och samtidigt lika effektiva som de som innehåller PFAS

Fluoro-free ski wax in focus

One product category that has received a great deal of attention within the project is ski wax. The project has seen the development of faster testing methodologies for screening the technical performance of new alternatives and prototypes before running friction tests on snow. New fluoro-free ski waxes have been developed by project partners and the project team has also developed an action plan to promote PFAS-free skiing. The International Ski Federation has now implemented a total ban on PFAS in all ski sports.

– "Stages 1 and 2 of POPFREE have been completed and we're now entering stage 3, where it's important to bring the solutions we've developed to market," says Tove.

This is being achieved by the manufacturers optimising and upscaling the production of PFAS-free formulas while brand owners evaluate real-life performance. Knowledge, information and successful phase-out examples will be shared at selected events and in various communication channels to increase awareness and engagement throughout the value chain – from producer to consumer.

Water purification testbed

To further evaluate the efficacy of the new substitutes, as well as to identify and evaluate methods for the purification of PFAS-contaminated water and PFAS-contaminated soil, the Testbed PFAS project was initiated in 2020. This project is a collaboration with Sweden's public defence sector (Swedish Armed Forces, Swedish Fortifications Agency and Swedish Defence Materiel Administration), with RISE acting as the coordinating partner.

One focus of Testbed PFAS is firefighting foams containing PFAS that have been used for many years for extinguishing aircraft fires, in both real-life incidents and training sessions.

– "One track within the project is to evaluate and compare different techniques for purifying soil and water contaminated with PFAS. Another is to ensure that future alternative substances and methods for PFAS-free firefighting do not have any previously unknown negative impacts on the environment or health. The new alternatives must be both sustainable and equally effective as those containing PFAS, as ultimately it comes down to saving lives," Tove ends.

Published: 2020-10-05

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Tove Mallin

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