PFAS in the environment in the news – and in the theatres, soon

A major film will soon be released with regard to, broadly speaking, the topic of Lecture 23 of my latest course. You can already watch the trailer on YouTube:

The film is called “Dark Waters” and some of the actors are Anne Hathaway, Mark Ruffalo, Tim Robbins, Bill Camp, Victor Garber, Mare Winningham, William Jackson Harper, and Bill Pullman. It was directed by Todd Haynes.

I found out about this because the Netherlands has tightened the environmental standards with regard to PFAS. No PFAS should be found in the soil, at all, according to the new standards. (For the details, watch the video at the bottom at this page, but it’s in Dutch.)

Thousands of Dutch construction projects have been put on hold because of PFAS in the soil. There are protests going on in the country today, mainly organized by the Dutch construction industry, but also dredging companies and others.

I mentioned PFAS in my book “We need to talk about this”, but I did not include it specifically in Lecture 23.

PFAS. PTFE (polytetrafluoroethylene). Teflon. PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid, also known as C8), which is a PFAS. GenX (HFPO-DA).

If you happen to own pet birds, you’ll know what this is about.

It is about non-stick and relatively heat-resistant materials that are not only used in cookware, but also in for example many space heaters, hair-dryers and, as I just found out, fire-extinguishing foam.

It’s been known for a long time that there were multiple problems with these products and I am pleased to see that this is now officially acknowledged.

I have used Teflon in the form of vials and beakers in the lab, as so little sticks to it. If you’re working with very low concentrations of metals in seawater, as I was at the time, it is important to prevent adsorption to the containers (the vials and beakers etc) you put your seawater in.

Of course, I’ve also had non-stick cookware at home for a while.

Roughly speaking, there are three kinds of problems with these materials:

  1. During production, toxic compounds are released into the local soils, air and waters and workers in those factories can be exposed to high concentrations of these toxic substances. (By the way, “toxic” is a matter of concentration and quantity. Too much of anything is not good for you; what differs is how much “too much” is. What we consider toxic in daily life concerns substances that cause problems in very low quantities or at low concentrations.)
  2. Notably new non-stick materials can release toxins into the air when overheated. This has killed many pet birds and also poultry (releases from heat lamps) because the respiratory system of birds is different (much more efficient) and hence birds are much more sensitive to toxins in the air than mammals.
  3. The related compounds also accumulate in soils and in body tissue.

I haven’t kept up with the topic in the past two years or so and I was not aware of these recent developments in the Netherlands either. So I still have some reading up to do, and maybe some e-mails to write as well.

The point I am making in Lecture 23 and also in this post is that it is impossible to know all the possible consequences of the use of any technological or scientific invention in advance. In the past we have often missed complications that seemed very obvious in retrospect.

This also holds for technologies like CRISPR.

It does not mean that we need to be scared of progress, but that we need to be cautious and use our brains, and also listen to “dissonant” voices.

If you happen to be able to read Dutch or don’t mind automated translations, here are links to Dutch news web pages:

And a link to a report:
https://www.rijksoverheid.nl/binaries/rijksoverheid/documenten/rapporten/2019/04/09/memo-rivm-overzicht-van-risicogrenzen-voor-pfos-pfoa-en-genx/memo-rivm-overzicht-van-risicogrenzen-voor-pfos-pfoa-en-genx.pdf

And a video:

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