Phasing out is not enough — the problem with fluorinated chemicals in wildlife

Read the full story at The Hill.

During a time of cultural and political polarization, a class of chemicals called per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, may be one of the few commonalities shared by all Americans. These human-created industrial chemicals are found in the blood of 99 percent of U.S. adults, as well as babies in the womb and children

But PFAS pollution isn’t limited to humans. A recent study by our group looked for 36 new and already banned types of PFAS in juvenile seabirds from three U.S. East Coast habitats near and far from human sources of these chemicals. We found high levels of a particular type of well-known PFAS, called PFOS, in every bird. PFOS was also found at high levels when U.S. East Coast seabirds were last surveyed for PFAS around 2001. However, PFOS was phased out of production in the U.S. in 2002, and listed for international regulation by the Stockholm Convention in 2009

But here’s the rub: finding this decommissioned chemical in these birds was not a surprise to us. Even today PFOS remains the most commonly found PFAS in wildlife from remote places like the Arctic as well as in wildlife living adjacent to human populations. 

But how does a compound banned two decades ago remain so abundant in wildlife around the globe today? Answer: uncanny persistence. PFOS and other types of well-known PFAS, or legacy PFAS, are tremendously stable in the environment; there are no known environmental pathways to break them down, earning them the nickname “forever chemicals.” 

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