Household products and food packaging have come a long way in the modern era, but for all their protective qualities these hardy items can come at a cost to our health and the environment. Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are a group of human-made chemicals found in such items that have raised eyebrows regarding their potential toxicity both to humans and wildlife. Their hardiness can mean they travel a long way without breaking down, and have been found in air, soil, and drinking water. Now, new research published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology has studied the transport of 29 PFAS into and out of the Arctic Ocean and found evidence of a supposedly “safer” replacement compound reaching this region for the first time.
Previous studies have indicated that two PFAS used in household products, specifically PFOA and PFOS, can cause significant health problems. Tests on lab animals revealed they could trigger cancer and compromised immune responses so the two compounds phased out of use in industry. Despite this, analyses reveal that these compounds live on in the environment, unsurprising when you consider that PFOA was originally formulated for its hardiness on tanks before eventually making it into our kitchens in the form of non-stick Teflon. To combat these legacy compounds, a “safer” replacement called HFPO-DA (sold under the trade name GenX) was created but since its release concern has increased that this replacement could be just as harmful as its predecessors.
The study authors wanted to get a better scope of the spread of these human-made environmental contaminants, and decided to track the long-range, oceanic transport of legacy and replacement PFAS to the Arctic Ocean. They focused on a stretch of water between Svalbard and Greenland known as the Fram Strait. Cruising through on an icebreaker research ship, they collected water samples for analysis using mass spectrometry to detect PFAS.
Their results revealed 11 PFAS were present in the Arctic Ocean water, including PFOA, HFPO-DA, and other long- and short-chain PFAS. The findings mark the first time the “safe” replacement HFPO-DA has been found in such a remote region, revealing that the apple didn’t fall far from the tree compared to its lingering legacy PFAS ancestors.
The study authors conclude that their findings add to a worrying body of evidence that HFPO-DA is similar to discontinued PFAS with regards to its capacity for long-range transport, earning it the categorization of “a compound of global environmental concern”. They also report that there is evidence that PFAS are making their way into the Arctic food web as an ether-based compound was detected in East Greenland marine mammals.