Nature and Biodiversity

How a paradigm shift in testing can prevent the next PFAS and microplastic environmental buildup

PFAS are a group of synthetic chemicals that emerged in the 1940s and have since been widely used in everyday household products.

PFAS are a group of synthetic chemicals that emerged in the 1940s and have since been widely used in everyday household products. Image: Photo by Carolina del Castillo on Unsplash

Tarun Anumol
Director, Global Environment & Food Markets, Agilent Technologies
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Climate and Nature

This article is part of: Centre for Nature and Climate

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  • Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, also known as PFAS, and microplastics have been accumulating in the environment for several decades virtually undetected.
  • Both are now commonly detectable in our drinking water, soil and even our bodies.
  • With greater cooperation among various stakeholders, we can catch the next PFAS or microplastic threat before it becomes a crisis and protect human health.

Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, also known as PFAS, and microplastics have been accumulating in the environment for several decades virtually undetected. PFAS are a group of synthetic chemicals that emerged in the 1940s and have since been widely used in everyday household products, such as nonstick cookware, stain-resistant upholstery and water-resistant clothing. Microplastics, mostly used for synthetic textiles and car tyres, are a product of the global explosion of plastics in our daily lives. Both are now commonly detectable in our drinking water, soil and even our bodies.

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We’ve long suspected the potential risks of these chemicals, but without abundant toxicological and occurrence data, they’ve mostly run under the radar. As more recent testing has shown the extent of their buildup and environmental contamination, this has led to new regulations, billion-dollar settlements and questions about their potential harms to human health.

Regulators have been playing catchup. The US Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) recently announced the first nationwide proposal to limit six PFAS in US drinking water, but this is only a small fraction of the 5,000 types of PFAS that exist. Meanwhile, toxicologists are working to understand what, if any, PFAS levels might be safe. A similar story exists for microplastics.

While this work is underway, we should ask ourselves two critical questions: how was this buildup of chemicals able to happen over so many years without much notice? And how can we prevent it in the future?

First, let’s look at the incentives at play. Products with PFAS and plastics have provided convenience and comfort to hundreds of millions of households. But we’re now seeing the trade-offs for relying on chemicals for these conveniences.

The dominant practice has long been to introduce chemicals and continue using them until they are proven to be unsafe. This is understandable, as it’s extremely difficult — if not impossible — to prove any human-made, and even many organic compounds, are completely safe. But this isn’t an either/or question. We can balance these risks and benefits more effectively with a new paradigm, one that supports innovation while adding stronger safeguards against the harmful accumulation of contaminants over decades.

That paradigm involves chemical testing early and often across the lifecycle. Until recently, routine and comprehensive testing for compounds, such as PFAS and microplastics along with untold numbers of other compounds, has been conducted rarely or is inconsistent at best, as there is no regulatory pressure to test for non-regulated compounds in the environment.

There is a better way.

Today we have advanced instruments capable of detecting thousands of compounds quickly and accurately, even down to the parts-per-trillion level. Over 160 million organic substances and chemicals are known. Approximately 255,000 new chemicals were registered in the last decade in the CAS Registry, the most authoritative database of chemicals. Yet, only a few hundred are regulated for discharge in our environment globally and only 105 are regulated in drinking water in the US. This is why monitoring and testing for these 'unregulated' chemicals, including PFAS and microplastics, is so critical.

Image: Created from data from the World Health Organization Guidance on Chemicals and Health, American Chemical Society Toward a Global Understanding of Chemical Pollution: A First Comprehensive Analysis of National and Regional Chemical Inventories, US EPA TSCA Chemical Substance Inventory, European Environment Agency Managing the Systemic Use of Chemicals in Europe and US EPA Drinking Water Regulations

It's also important to understand that we can’t manage what we can’t measure. Regular and consistent testing programmes can tell us which compounds are accumulating, how much, where and over what period. We’re sorely lacking this data for PFAS and microplastics and this makes it harder to get to grips with the issue while we wait for toxicological profiles to determine safe levels, if any.

If we take a more proactive approach — from passive monitoring to proactive monitoring on a broad scale — we can be in a better position moving forward to understand potential problems as they arise and will have the occurrence and monitoring data across time and geography to respond more effectively.

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So how do we get there? As a first step, companies that work with chemicals should consider doing more proactive testing of their effluents. Governments can encourage this by providing uniform testing standards and incentives for companies to conduct more testing and to share information with researchers, including normalizing and proposing monitoring programmes for testing. Over time, programmes such as these will increase innovation and prevent the next environmental health crisis.

With greater cooperation among various stakeholders, from regulators and industry to measurement specialists and testing labs, we can catch the next PFAS or microplastics threat before it becomes a crisis, we can preserve public confidence — and most importantly — we can protect human health.

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