PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances) are a family of man-made chemicals found in a wide variety of products such as non-stick coatings, cosmetics, paints, adhesives, cleaning products, and fire-fighting foams. Known as “forever chemicals”, PFAS persist in the environment and the body for long periods of time. Unfortunately, low concentrations of these forever chemicals are increasingly being linked to human health conditions, such as increased cholesterol, reduced kidney function, cancer, reduced fertility, lower birth weight, thyroid disease, and weakened immunity.
As a result of these increasing health concerns, Canada prohibited the manufacture, use, sale, or import of products containing one type of PFAS (PFOS) in 2008 and issued drinking water guidelines in 2018. Although this was a move in the right direction, many types of PFAS are still unregulated and PFAS are still permitted for use in firefighting foam and photography media. These exceptions mean that sites such as airports and military bases may not only have historic contamination but continue to be contaminated with PFAS-containing substances.
Individuals living near contaminated sites may unknowingly be using PFAS-contaminated water. This occurred in Nova Scotia in 2010, when residents near Canadian Forces Base Greenwood were informed of dangerous levels of a PFAS in the Greenwood water supply. This water supply was also used by local schools and some residents. Bottled water was required until the residents and schools were moved to the municipal water system. This issue is not limited to military sites, as multiple airports in Canada have shown high levels of PFAS. Although these airports were owned by the federal government at the time of the contamination, federal funds to remediate the sites depend on individual transfer agreements, leaving some sites with less funds than others to remediate the contamination.
The continued prevalence of PFAS is still apparent in 2020. For instance, a study of chemicals in Canadians’ blood revealed that PFAS were found in concerning amounts in the general population. With improvements in test sensitivity, we are now able to test for more types and lower concentrations of PFAS. Furthermore, filtering contaminated water with activated charcoal or reverse osmosis can remove PFAS; but individuals first need to know if such treatments are required to initiate this measure. Unfortunately, filtration merely moves these forever chemicals from drinking water to filters that are disposed of in landfills, potentially allowing the PFAS to re-enter the environment.
With ever expanding test sensitivity, accumulating research supporting the health impacts at even low concentrations, and the increasing number of PFAS types being labeled as medical concerns, we may eventually see PFAS as the subject of future litigation and class proceedings.