WRITTEN BY: Margaret Golden, ISTC staff
When we think of chemicals that could be on our food, we usually think of the pesticides that are used to eliminate pests. We rarely think of the cookware that we use to prepare it. Maybe we should start.
One of the most common ways that people come in contact with chemicals called per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFASs) is through nonstick cookware. PFASs are a collection of man-made chemical compounds that include PFOA, PFOS, and newer GenX chemicals. They were created in the mid-twentieth century and have been used in manufacturing of various products ever since. They’re popular because they don’t degrade and can make products stain-resistant, waterproof, or non-stick. Because of their popularity, they have managed to make their way into water systems and living organisms through leaching and contamination. In addition to cookware, you can find PFASs in a variety of food packaging, household products, clothing items, fire-fighting foams, industrial waste, and drinking water. They also accumulate in the tissue of living organisms, including humans.
The prevalence of PFASs in the environment is a concern because they have been proven to harm both the environment and human health. PFASs are stable molecules, which make them resistant to most treatment methods. This resistance to breakdown means they stay in any living organisms that they come in contact with and can accumulate in the body over time. Additional research has shown that these chemicals can lead to a wide range of adverse health effects, which include immune system deficiencies, low infant birth weights, cancer, thyroid hormone distribution, developmental and liver problems, and potentially many more. Water contamination specifically is becoming a large concern. Drinking water in two Detroit suburbs has tested positive for PFAS contamination. PFASs also have been detected in several other of Michigan’s drinking water sources such as waterways and lakes. It is clear that PFAS are increasingly becoming more of a problem for our health and the environment.
Thanks to the PFOA Stewardship program, most PFASs production has been phased out in the United States. However, people can still come in contact with them through imported goods because they are not yet banned internationally. In addition, companies in the U.S. are still producing next generation PFASs, called GenX. These compounds are found in firefighting foams and food packaging. Because of that, further research on these chemicals is being done all over the country and world.
The Illinois Sustainable Technology Center (ISTC) has teamed up with researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering and the University of California at Riverside to combat this issue and work toward a solution. Researchers from each university are currently investigating the effects of cobalt (Co)-catalyzed defluorination to degrade PFASs. ISTC is working to connect the PFAS research community and increase public awareness through seminars and conferences surrounding research findings.
The first conference will take place in the beginning of June. ISTC will be collaborating with the Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant and the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering to hold the 2018 Emerging Contaminants in the Aquatic Environment Conference. Be sure to mark your calendars and register online if you’re interested. One speaker to specifically look forward to is Rainer Lohmann, a professor of Oceanography from the University of Rhode Island, who will be doing a keynote presentation on PFASs. With this conference and series of seminars, ISTC hopes to help eliminate the use of PFASs and help to find more sustainable replacements.