Future of Hygiene: The Toxic Chemicals Tainting our Water
Polyfluoroalkyl, better known as PFAS, are manufactured chemicals used in industrial production. Traces of PFAS are found in everyday household objects, most notably in non-stick cookware, grease-resistant paper, fast food wrappers and cleaning products.
Unfortunately, we inhale these so-called ‘forever chemicals’ on a daily basis1 – named as such since they can take centuries to break down in nature – and they’re in the blood of nearly every person on earth2.
These conditions are only a small selection of the consequences of breathing in PFAS.
You might think that this might not add up to much, but roughly 40% of the global population lives within 100km of the coast, meaning many people are potentially at risk of inhaling these particles and suffering the health consequences.
They’re even in our rain: levels of PFAS in rainfall are far higher than those of other common substances such as mercury and pesticides. Again, the leading cause of this being sea-spray aerosols. Sea-spray aerosols is what makes the issue of PFAS a global crisis as they transport them easily around the world. Traces of PFAS have even been found in locations as remote as Mount Everest and in Arctic Sea ice.
The impact of PFAS on our health is certainly cause for concern, yet there are ways we can all be part of the limiting their spread and their negative impact.
The immediate solution is to remove them from the water. According to a study carried out by the Environmental Working Group, more than 200 million Americans are drinking water containing PFAS3.
Part of the answer lies in home treatment systems that use filtration technology. Although these won't reduce the amount of PFAs produced, a collective effort to remove them from drinking water could help to limit the number of health conditions that might develop as a result of imbibing PFAS.
However, when it comes to reducing the use of PFAs in everyday products, the most effective way is to support the efforts made by governing bodies – most notably the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
Between 2021 and 2024, the EPA launched a program to minimise the effects of PFAs, and it has been working on shifting production away from using these harmful chemicals4. The agency has since intensified its research and continues to work with the authorities to restrict the release of PFAS into the environment, as well as organising the clean-up of PFAS.
The EPA is also looking to designate PFAS as ‘hazardous substances’ – which would not only encourage a nationwide approach to monitoring, but also set into motion the process of identifying and cleaning up PFAS all over the US, with the EPA suing polluters to cover costs. Other countries may eventually follow suit.
Private companies are also taking matters into their own hands, in areas such as water utilities, engineering and construction, waste management and technology.
Ion-exchange remains their main solution, however, which involves tiny magnets attracting and holding contaminated materials from passing through the water system. These solutions remove PFAS to non-detectable levels5.
The firm’s footprint now stretches across the US, from the coasts of Maine to the mountains of Colorado. A huge mobile unit, meanwhile, means that it can reach virtually every part of the country in a matter of hours, while the company is also expanding internationally, including in India and the Asia Pacific6.
While water cleanliness has now become a global problem that we can’t afford to ignore, it’s not intractable. Companies like Evoqua – helped by a powerful tailwind from governments – will be key in making sure clean drinking water is a given again.
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2 Source: CHEM Trust, https://chemtrust.org/wp-content/uploads/PFAS_Brief_CHEMTrust_2019.pdf
3 Source: EWG, October 2020, https://www.ewg.org/news-insights/news-release/study-more-200-million-americans-could-have-toxic-pfas-their-drinking
4 Source: United States Environmental Protection Agency, https://www.epa.gov/pfas/pfas-strategic-roadmap-epas-commitments-action-2021-2024
5 Source: Evoqua, https://www.evoqua.com/en/articles/pfas-resource-guide/
6 Source: Evoqua, Evoqua, https://www.evoqua.com/en-GB/evoqua/products--services/