American researchers have reported concerning levels of Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS) in breastmilk in a new study. These substances have gained the name of forever chemicals, as it’s very difficult to break them down. This characteristic is very useful in industry, where they are employed in many different products, but the obvious side effect is that they can easily accumulate in animals and in the environment.
Some of these PFAS are no longer in use in industry. Others, believed to be less harmful continue to be used. In the work, published in Environmental Science & Technology, researchers tested the breast milk of 50 women for 39 different PFAS, including nine which are currently used in industry.
The team found PFAS in all the samples. They report 16 PFAS out of the 39 in the breast milk, with 12 of them in more than 50 percent of the milk analyzed. Concentrations were between 52 parts per trillion (ppt) to more than 500 ppt.
“We shouldn’t be finding any PFAS in breast milk and our findings make it clear that broader phaseouts are needed to protect babies and young children during the most vulnerable stages of life. Moms work hard to protect their babies, but big corporations are putting these, and other toxic chemicals that can contaminate breast milk, in products when safer options are available,” co-author Erika Schreder, science director of Toxic-Free Future, said in a statement.
A positive find is that certain dangerous PFAS appeared to have declined in concentration compared to findings from previous work. On the other hand, the team found the amount of new PFAS is instead increasing. This suggests that despite claims, these chemicals continue to bioaccumulate.
“These findings make it clear that the switch to newer PFAS over the last decade didn’t solve the problem,” added Dr Amina Salamova, study co-author and associate research scientist at Indiana University. “This study provides more evidence that current-use PFAS are building up in people. What this means is that we need to address the entire class of PFAS chemicals, not just legacy-use variations.”
Unless one works with PFAS, the most likely source of ingestion is through water sources and food packaging. There have been investigations in techniques that can destroy the chemicals completely via electrochemical oxidation and even with a bacterium but so far these remain experimental.
The use and disposal of PFAS, a class that contains 4,700 chemicals, remains mostly unregulated – and these findings are an obvious consequence of that.