Special Edition - PFAS: The Great Human Crisis, with Erik D. Olson
Updated: Apr 13
In this special edition podcast we talk to Erik D. Olson from the NRDC. He talks about PFAS and the impact of toxic 'forever chemicals' on the environment, on products and packaging that are all in general use. Erik highlights the research evidence that demonstrates links to cancers and other serious health concerns. We consider what this means for a variety of products including school uniforms, toys, astroturf and food packaging and explore ways in which teachers, parents and pupils can take positive steps to help change happen.
PFAS: The Great Human Crisis, with Erik D. Olson
Carl McCarthy, April 2020
“High toxicity, very mobile and lasting virtually forever make them a bad combination. And they found links to numerous health effects, including cancer of the kidneys and a series of other health effects. And the concern is, of course, that now that this stuff is being found in the environment all over the United States and all over the world a lot of people are being exposed...”
Last week I had the real privilege of speaking to Erik Olson from the NRDC. I’d been to see the ‘Dark Waters’ movie with my eldest son and then devoured Rob Bilott’s ‘Exposure’ book in just two sittings. In the footsteps of ‘Erin Brockovich’ and other great David and Goliath tales, there was something deeply satisfying about being sat in the stands while conscientious heroes uncover injustice, fight for the underdog, and win.
But I was also troubled.
When you read about the groundwater in Hinkley being contaminated with carcinogenic hexavalent chromium, the human stories behind it connect to the soul, even though the scientific terms may not. However, the simple message behind Exposure was that PFAS, a group of chemicals that have been proven to be harmful to human health in devastating ways, even in microscopic doses, were in my blood and were in my son’s blood too – and had been since he was in the womb.
“There really is no need for them, frankly.”
I wanted to find out more, so contacted FIDRA (a UK organisation) and NRDC (based in the USA) and was delighted to hear back from the NRDC straight away. Eric is the senior strategic director for health and food, Healthy people and thriving Communities. He has more than 30 years of experience working at the intersection of public policy and consumer advocacy, and currently directs the NRDC's advocacy initiatives on health, food and agriculture, including campaigns on drinking water protection, toxins in products and the environment, pesticides, food additives, antibiotics and efforts related to agriculture and climate change. His work has led to the first major overhaul of the U. S. Food and Drug Administration's food safety laws in more than 70 years, as well as revamped laws protecting the nation's drinking water and food supply from pesticides.
I asked him how he became interested in this field of work.
“Well, actually, I got interested when I was a child. I actually grew up in Chicago, Illinois. It was a big city. I was right on Lake Michigan, and I remember from back in the days when I was a young man the air pollution being in Chicago and actually dust from coal burning, settling on our apartments all over the place, my mother having to clean up every day and wondering whether that was really healthy for a soul to be breathing and seeing a massive fish kill on Lake Michigan shore that was from the environment being out of balance. So that got me interested and I've really been interested in the connections between our environment and public health for many, many years.”
And what about PFAS? PFOA, PFOS? What’s the story with these chemicals?
“Well, PFAS . It's a very long word. It's per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances. Everybody calls them PFAS. These chemicals are man-made. They are used in making Teflon pans, for example, and non-stick pans. They're used in some firefighting foam that's widely used in some airports and they're used in many other ways for non-stick surfaces. They've been used for carpets and for couches and so on to make them less susceptible to staining. And they unfortunately, have three common elements that make them problematic:
One is that they are toxic, in very, very low concentrations in the parts per trillion levels in our drinking water. They pose health threats.
Secondly, they're widely called forever chemicals or forever toxics because they have a bond in them that is virtually impossible for Mother Nature to break down. So they last for decades, maybe centuries, in the environment.
And thirdly, they move very quickly through the environment. So once they get into water, for example, into the ground water, they spread quickly into surface water into the air that can spread quickly. So those three effects, high toxicity, very mobile and lasting virtually forever make them a bad combination.
PFOA, PFAS are actually a very large family of toxic chemicals. There are by last accounts, almost 8000 of these, according to the most recent EPA data that I saw. So there are thousands of these chemicals. A couple of them were the early entries PFOA and PFOS. That's just two out of the roughly 8000 of this big family of toxic forever chemicals. They were widely used to make some of the products I was mentioning before, like Teflon and some of the firefighting foams and some of the Scotchgard and other chemicals that are creating stain resistance in fabrics and are widely used in industry across the board. So they've been around for decades. Those two that I mentioned have been phased out in the United States and in many other countries. PFOA and PFOS are not being made anymore, but the problem is they are a little bit like shark's teeth: you break off one, and there are a bunch of them right behind that are ready to bight you, so eliminating one or two of them really hasn't done very much because we still have thousands of them in reserve.”
Image source: https://www.defence.gov.au/Environment/PFAS/pfas.asp
Generally speaking, we think we know about many toxic substances, how to risk assess and how we can avoid these in our daily lives.
But PFAS are different.
There seemed to be a particularly worrying feature in that they don’t go away. They were designed, by people, to withstand nature. So once they’ve been created they are there for good – in the places where they might have originally have been designed for – but unfortunately for us, in many of the places that they weren’t.
Including our own bodies.
“Well, the reason these are so hard to break down in nature is they have what's called a carbon–fluorine bond. This is a bond that doesn't exist, a chemical bond that doesn't exist in nature. And it's virtually impossible for bugs, bacteria and so on to break it down. It takes a long time for it to break down in the environment and because of that property, they tend to stick around a long time. Once we consume them they can build up in our bodies and last for years. Across the world, about 99% of the world has PFAS in their bloodstreams and in their body tissues. So we're all carrying this stuff around, most of us from the time we're born. They don't eliminate themselves so it's not like if you stop consuming them today, you're going to be free of them in a week or a month. Your levels will very gradually go down which is why we call them Forever chemicals.”
Why is this a problem?
I asked Erik why this might be a problem for the environment and for us.
“Well, just because they don't go away doesn't necessarily mean they're a problem. The PFAS problem is because they are so toxic at very low doses. So our concern is that a lot of studies have now been done. One of the biggest ones was done in the United States. It's called the C8 study, which stands for the number of carbon atoms in the PFOA and PFAS. And that study looked at over 60,000 people in the state of West Virginia here in the U. S. And these folks had all been exposed to elevated levels of these chemicals in their drinking water, and they found links to numerous health effects, including cancer of the testicles, cancer of the kidneys and a series of other health effects. And the concern is, of course, that now that this stuff is being found in the environment all over the United States and all over the world. A lot of people are being exposed to it through their drinking water through consumer products, through their food and through numerous other avenues. The concern is that some of these health effects ranging from cancer to impact on the kidneys, and other effects that can occur in pregnant women, for example.”
In the Dark Waters movie, like Erin Brockovich, both centred on water contamination. Companies that were involved in the production, manufacture and use of toxic chemicals had knowingly contaminated land and water. This seems to be almost unimaginable – the stuff and nonsense from which conspiracy theories are made – but this wasn’t stuff and nonsense. Real people, making real decisions, were knowingly putting profit over human health – with disastrous consequences.
So what would be the most common ways for these particular toxic chemicals to get into the environment?
“Well, they get into the environment in different ways. One of the most widespread is they have been used for a long time in these sprays that are used to suppress chemical fires or, um, petroleum fires. So they have been in widespread use in airports, for example, and in defence installations. So all these big air force installations and so on, and it's not really so much that they're used on the fires. The problem is that they have been very widely used in training exercises, and they're just sprayed all over the place and left to sink into the ground water or wash off into surface water. And so we've seen this in the U. S. Just last week, our Defence Department announced that over 650 sites across the United States may be contaminated with these chemicals…and now Heathrow and a lot of other airports across the world have switched out of these PFAS firefighting foams. Unfortunately, here in the United States, we've been very slow in replacing PFAS chemicals. In fact, some federal rules have required them for a long time. So we're just now starting to phase them out, we hope, from those using PFAS.
Other big uses of them include a lot of industrial uses, for reducing stains on textiles. So they've been widely used in things like clothing and footwear in carpeting and rugs, innumerable other types of uses. So that gets into you when you use that product or the factory's themselves that are using it will often discharge it into the air or into the water. The chemical companies that are making it will (also) often discharge it into the air of the water.”
When I heard this, my thinking was: ‘Okay, so we've got a combination of the production and manufacture of the chemicals themselves. There’s the products themselves and PFAS in things like firefighting foam used in the training. For some of these things, perhaps there are alternatives. But there are few uses which are, as a father and a teacher, particularly concerning.
School uniforms, too?
School uniforms, for example, is that something that's still an issue?’
“It very well can be an issue. So if a piece of clothing is stain resistant, able to be stain resistant or is water resistant or waterproof, there's a very good chance it is treated with PFAS. And that would be something you pretty much would have to ask the manufacturer of the clothing, whether they have treated it with PFAS or not.
If it's labelled as stain resistant or as water resistant or waterproof, pretty good chance that it's in there.”
Which is really interesting because the number of Children I can picture in my mind who are chewing their stain-resistant clothing in school, you know, like gnawing the sleeves away. I just wondered if that's something I should try to look into.
“I was going to say Yes, I would be concerned. You know, I don't want to panic people. The amount that a child is likely to get from just wearing that clothing is likely to be small unless the clothing has started to degrade. That's when you start to worry. So it's not like they're going to be poisoned tomorrow. The way that this stuff is used is it's usually put into the chemicals and will start them binding to each other. So the theory, at least, is that when it's fairly new there's going to be be fairly low levels of exposure. The problem is when it gets to be older and it starts falling apart, whether that starts to release some of the chemicals.
And of course, the manufacturing of those clothes and the application of that chemical can contaminate the community.”
One of the things that is perhaps most surprising is the persistence with use and application of chemicals that are known to be hazardous to human health. Especially as there are alternatives!
“There are alternatives. Believe it or not, When we were growing up, we didn't really need these materials sprayed onto our clothing. There really is no need for them, frankly, but I guess, you know, it's a little bit of a convenience and unfortunately, it started to be widely used, before the public fully understood the extent of the problem.”
My mind was racing. Before the public understood the extent of the problem.
In a very short period of time, and with a very small amount of information, I’d gone from sitting in the stands, watching drama unfold with others, to being inside the issue itself. The people involved weren’t from a remote part of USA, not that it makes the issue any less significant, the people involved were sat by my side – my neighbours, my family, my children.
I asked about a series of other products that might contain PFAS and remembered that food packaging was something that had been raised as an area for concern.
“Yeah, well, that's a pretty significant issue here. So if you get your take away that you know your Chinese food or perhaps your pizza box, etc.
If it's treated to not allow grease to penetrate it, it's very likely to have PFAS in it.
So a lot of cardboard that doesn't allow, that’s grease resistant or grease proof: that's going to be sprayed with PFAS or have PFAS in it. So, yes, fruit packaging definitely has it. We actually succeeded in getting the U. S Food and Drug Administration to ban certain of the long chain PFAS of the like - the C-8 and the long chain… But unfortunately, there's still thousands of other PFAS that still could be used. There are a couple of states in the US that are now moving towards a ban PFAS food packaging. We like to be able to compost food packaging and you cannot compost it if there's a lot of PFAS in it, because then you're going to be growing plants, presumably for food, in PFAS contaminated compost. We're phasing out PFAS from all the compostable fruit packaging but that's not been achieved yet.”
Interestingly, Denmark has already introduced legislation that will see a ban on PFAS treated food packaging, due to come into force in July 2020.
I looked at the most recent water sampling from the UK - this diagram shows PFOS – the more dangerous version of PFAS no longer used – but still present in the environment. If companies don’t act, these figures can only get worse and these areas can only get more hazardous.
I asked Erik if there Is there anything that we could do to avoid a surge in the future? If there is anything we could do now?
“Well, I wish I could say it would be easy for us to turn off the spigot for the more toxic chemicals that we have been producing for years. I think that would require pretty significant policy changes in a change of heart in the chemical industry, which it's not easy to come by. Unfortunately, in the U. S. We just had the federal Environmental Protection Agency here under the current administration announced that they were suspending most enforcement of their monitoring and reporting requirements during the current pandemic. We are concerned it is going to mean that we could see a surge in pollution from some of the facilities that are not going to feel that they have to continue tracking their pollutants . So I don't know. I mean, I'd like to think that maybe this has taught us some lessons about prevention and investment and public health before we get caught with big problems. But I haven't seen evidence of that yet…
I think the main thing is we can't really shop our way out of this problem. You can certainly reduce your exposure by not buying, for example, pans that are treated with non-stick chemicals and instead using cast iron and not purchasing clothing that is waterproof using PFAS”
(By the way, you can find a list of PFAS free products here:)
The origin of this podcast was the thought that we can meet Sustainable Development Goal 12 by the year 2030. I wondered what advice Erik would give to teachers and parents to help to achieve this?
“I think there really is a lot of hope out there because a lot of younger people are identifying what we call green chemistry as a new, advanced way to be thinking about how to protect our environment and how to protect her health. So some chemistry departments across the United States and across the world are moving in the direction of green chemistry. That basically means before you start using a chemical, you try to make sure that it's not toxic. You try to make sure it's not dangerous to the environment to public health, and that is a new movement. And I would encourage teachers to think about how to integrate some green chemistry principles into addressing basic everyday problems. Is there a way that we could avoid using it in toxic chemicals, school uniforms or in our food packaging? What's an alternative to doing that? There are some ways that we used to have that would avoid people being exposed these toxic chemicals. How can we do that in the future?
Those are real world problems and I think young, innovative minds can solve these problems without turning to toxic chemicals.
For more infromation:
Some green chemistry info for educators
· Biomimicry for kids https://asknature.org/collections/biomimicry-for-kids/
· StemAZing biomimicry: https://stemazing.org/biomimicry/
· Thinkdive biomimicry for young children: https://thinkdivebiomimicry.com/
General Science/home learning
· Primary Science Teaching Trust, https://pstt.org.uk/
· Science Sparks, https://www.science-sparks.com/
o Easter themed activities, https://www.science-sparks.com/fun-easter-science-experiments/
· Wow Science, https://wowscience.co.uk/
· Explorify, https://explorify.wellcome.ac.uk/
· Science Museum, https://learning-resources.sciencemuseum.org.uk/
· Royal Institution Experimental, https://www.rigb.org/families/experimental
· BBC Terrific Scientific, https://www.bbc.co.uk/teach/terrific-scientific
· OPAL – Explore Nature, https://www.opalexplorenature.org/
· Reach Out Reporter, https://www.reachoutreporter.com/
· The Woodland Trust, Nature Detectives, https://www.woodlandtrust.org.uk/blog/2020/03/kids-nature-activities-self-isolation/
· Encounter Edu, https://encounteredu.com/
· Marvin and Milo, https://spark.iop.org/collections/marvin-and-milo#gref
· BP Educational Service, https://bpes.bp.com/
· Kids Against Plastic, https://www.kidsagainstplastic.co.uk/
o PSTT CPD Units, https://pstt.org.uk/resources/cpd-units
o Reach Out CPD, https://www.reachoutcpd.com/
o STEM Learning online CPD, https://www.stem.org.uk/online-cpd
o The Age of Wonder, Richard Holmes
o The Knowledge, Lewis Dartnell
o It’s not fair, or is it?
With thanks to Tom Holloway for Science references and Erik D. Olson for additional links
(Credits: Music by Scott Buckley - www.scottbuckley.com.au; Greta Thunberg c/o https://www.fridaysforfuture.org/greta-speeches)
This episode is dedicated to all the teachers, support staff, key workers and NHS staff who are doing amazing work for us all.