Almost everyone in the United States has plastic in their blood.
Specifically, per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, known as PFAS. They’re most often used to make products that are resistant to heat, grease, oil, stains, and water, like waterproof jackets or nonstick cookware. These products shed microscopic pieces of plastic that find their way into our drinking water, oceans, soil, animals, food, and finally, our bloodstreams, according to data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey.
Though the extent of the harmful effects of PFAS aren’t fully known, the substances have been linked to health issues such as cancer in both humans and animals. Many companies have stopped using PFAS in their products, but it’s not easy to remove the microplastics that have already contaminated our environment.
“It’s terrifying,” says Indranil Chowdhury, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering at Washington State University. “PFAS have a carbon and fluorine bond, one of the strongest bonds in chemistry. It’s really hard to remove it from water.”
Chowdhury and his team at the SMART Water Environmental Lab are exploring ways to efficiently remove and destroy PFAS, which earned the nickname “forever chemicals” because it takes hundreds or thousands of years to degrade the substances. Though PFAS can be mostly absorbed and sequestered from drinking water using carbon, it still exists as a waste product. Chowdhury’s goal is to find a way to permanently destroy the substances without creating harmful by-products.
The team is also considering nanotechnology as a method to break the strong chemical bonds in PFAS, making it easier to absorb, remove, and eventually destroy the substances entirely. This kind of technique could eventually be used at water treatment plants or in home water systems, but practical applications are still far away.
“Even at a low concentration, PFAS can still be bad for our health,” Chowdhury says. “But the alternative is just not there yet.”
In the meantime, Chowdhury recommends filtering tap water with a carbon filter and avoiding plastic water bottles. It’s also important to check if nonstick cookware has PFAS before buying it.
Interactive map of suspected US PFAS industrial discharges
(Offsite—courtesy Environmental Working Group)
“More ‘forever chemicals’ found in WA drinking water as cleanup costs mount” (Seattle Times, December 11, 2022)
The Filthy Truth About Your Tap Water: The US is proposing bold action to clean thousands of “forever chemicals” out of drinking water. (Wired, March 17, 2023)