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Ocean waves send harmful PFAS forever chemicals back to land

“Forever chemicals”, or PFAS, are the subject of a pivotal study by Stockholm University’s Department of Environmental Science. This research uncovers a neglected route through which PFAS cycle back to land from the ocean.

It challenges the common belief, showing PFAS do not simply dilute in the ocean but follow a cyclical journey.

The study reveals that ocean waves launch these toxic substances into the air, where they then settle back onto land, posing potential risks to human health and the environment.

PFAS: a persistent threat

PFAS, short for Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances, represent a vast group of synthetic chemicals.

Due to their ability to resist heat, oil, stains, grease, and water, PFAS are prevalent in many products. This includes non-stick cookware, water-repellent clothing, stain-resistant fabrics and carpets, certain firefighting foams, and various grease-, water-, and oil-resistant items.

However, PFAS have earned the moniker “forever chemicals” for their durability and tendency to persist in the environment and accumulate over time.

Such persistence, evident in both the environment and living organisms, has sparked health concerns. Specifically, potential risks associated with PFAS exposure include an increased likelihood of cancer, hormone disruption, and adverse effects on the immune system.

PFAS research at ocean

The research team undertook extensive field experiments across the Atlantic Ocean. This team included Bo Sha, a post-doctoral researcher, and Jana Johansson, a former researcher at the Department who is now at Linköping University.

Their innovative approach featured a custom-built sea spray simulator aboard a research vessel. Over two months, they conducted multiple experiments using this setup.

Subsequently, the startling results showed that air particle concentrations of PFAS exceeded those in seawater by over 100,000 times, highlighting ocean spray’s efficiency in reintroducing these chemicals into the atmosphere.

PFAS ‘boomerang effect on land and ocean

Ian Cousins, a professor at the Department of Environmental Science and a co-author of the study, emphasized the significance of their findings.

“Contrary to the common belief that PFAS are merely washed away from the land into the ocean, our research shows that there’s a ‘boomerang effect.’ Some of these chemicals are re-emitted into the air, transported over long distances, and then deposited back onto land,” Cousins explained.

A concerning discovery

Bo Sha noted the dual nature of their research. She states, “Our findings, while scientifically impactful, are also disconcerting.”

Furthermore, the study not only contributes to the scientific understanding of PFAS distribution. In essence, this also sparks concern among scientists, regulators, and the general public, given the widespread presence and persistence of these chemicals.

Global implications of PFAS ocean pollution

Matthew Salter, a co-author and researcher at the Department of Environmental Science, highlighted supporting evidence from Denmark. There, scientists pinpoint the sea along the west coast as a primary PFAS source.

Salter remarked, “This aligns with our expectations, as our study predicts that coastal regions are the most impacted.” He underlined the global significance of their findings.

Thus, Stockholm University’s study represents a critical advancement in understanding PFAS pollution in the ocean. It illuminates the complex and unforeseen pathways these chemicals navigate in our environment.

The findings stress the immediate necessity for more research, regulatory action, and mitigation efforts to combat the widespread and enduring threat of PFAS. This is particularly vital for coastal areas, where their effects are most acute.

Minimizing PFAS pollution in oceans and beyond

Reducing PFAS in the environment and minimizing exposure is critical due to their persistence and potential health risks. Here are strategies to reduce PFAS:

At the regulatory level

  1. Stricter regulations: Governments can implement tighter controls on the production, use, and disposal of PFAS-containing products.
  2. Clean-up efforts: Invest in cleaning up contaminated sites, including water bodies and land areas, using advanced remediation technologies.
  3. Monitoring and research: Enhance monitoring of PFAS in the environment and fund research into safer alternatives and remediation methods.

In industry

  1. Developing alternatives: Industries should research and adopt PFAS-free alternatives for products and processes.
  2. Better manufacturing practices: Implementing practices that reduce PFAS emissions and contamination during production.
  3. Product stewardship: Encouraging producers to take responsibility for the entire lifecycle of their products to ensure they minimize environmental impact.

At the consumer level

  1. Informed purchasing: Consumers can choose products free of PFAS, such as non-stick cookware alternatives and PFAS-free clothing.
  2. Reducing use of disposable products: Many disposable products, like food packaging, contain PFAS. Opting for reusable items can reduce demand.
  3. Community action: Engaging in community efforts to pressure local governments and industries to adopt PFAS-free practices and policies.

Waste management

  1. Proper disposal: Ensuring that products containing PFAS are disposed of properly to prevent leaching into the ocean and other environments.
  2. Recycling innovations: Developing recycling methods that can safely break down PFAS materials without releasing them into the environment.

Lifestyle Changes

  1. Water filtration: Using water filters certified to reduce PFAS levels can minimize exposure through drinking water.
  2. Home gardening practices: Avoiding PFAS-containing pesticides and soil treatments in home gardens.

Reducing PFAS requires concerted efforts across all levels of society, from individual actions to global regulatory frameworks.

By making informed choices and advocating for change, we can collectively reduce the presence of these persistent chemicals in our environment.

The full study was published in the journal Science Advances.


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