Part 2: PFAS: Where Do They Come From?

When firefighters save lives by spraying flames with extinguishing foams, we see why these foams — PFAS, or “forever chemicals” — fulfill an important safety role in modern human life. But are they really needed to prevent the cheese from sticking to our greasy pizza boxes and to ensure nonstick kernels in microwave popcorn bags?

Most likely not, answers Rainer Lohmann, a University of Rhode Island (URI) chemical oceanographer and PFAS expert. We need to “stop production of chemicals that don’t go away,” says Lohmann, lead researcher on STEEP — Sources, Transport, Exposure & Effects of PFAS — a partnership project of the URI Coastal Institute to understand, analyze, and address just how harmful PFAS are to people and the environment. While PFAS use may be justifiable in some products, like flame retarding foam (PFAS suffocates fire better than other options), Lohmann questions its presence in basic household items like makeup—for sheen? — and dental floss—for that smooth glide?

“Forever Chemicals: PFAS – Where Do They Come From?” is the second of an eight-part STEEP video shorts series, “Silent Chemicals, Loud Science,” that explores problems posed by PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances), explains how STEEP science is shedding light on the issues, and offers practical and positive steps for making our daily lives less vulnerable to adverse health impacts.  In this video, Lohmanndescribes the manmade chemicals which are proven to create certain health risks, and explains how they never break down or go away. Whether for essential use — like that firefighting foam — or not, PFAS stay forever, both indoors and out. That’s why, says Lohmann, most of us — 98 percent — carry PFAS in our blood. 

So, indicates Lohmann, we’d be wise to choose our PFAS uses carefully. First and foremost, he says, is protecting drinking water and water resources. He points to the case of a milk farm in Maine; a farmer’s livelihood halted when the milk produced by his cows was found laden with PFAS tied to a wastewater treatment plant and the use of associated biosolids. An “extreme” case, says Lohmann, but one that reminds us of the close connection between what’s in the environment and what we ingest. 

Household uses deserve scrutiny too, says Lohmann. PFAS coats food packaging so we don’t touch grease, and stops stains from permeating our clothing, furniture and rugs. It’s a common ingredient in cosmetics. Fire extinguishers aside, we should, says Lohmann, be working actively to keep PFAS at a minimum in our lives. “Hopefully,” he says, we get to a point where “we limit the non-essential uses” of PFAS, because they’re “too dangerous for the long term.”

More Videos