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Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances in the environment
Evich, M., M. Davis, J. McCord, B. Acrey, J. Awkerman, D. Knappe, A. Lindstrom, T. Speth, C. Stevens, M. Strynar, Z. Wang, E. Weber, W. Henderson, AND J. Washington. Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances in the environment. SCIENCE. American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), Washington, DC, 375(6580):eabg9065, (2022). https://doi.org/10.1126/science.abg9065
Dubbed “forever chemicals” due to their innate chemical stability, PFAS, short for poly- and perfluoroalkyl substances, have been found as ubiquitous environmental contaminants, present from the far Arctic reaches of the planet to urban rainwater. Although public awareness of these compounds is still relatively new, PFAS have been manufactured for almost seven decades. In that time, industrial uses of PFAS have extended to more than 200 diverse applications including fast-food containers, anti-staining fabrics, and fire-suppressing foams. These numerous applications are possible and continue to expand because PFAS are a rapidly broadening physiochemically diverse class of thousands of unique synthetic chemicals, related by their use of highly stable carbon-fluorine bonds. As these products flow through their life cycle from production to disposal (Print Fig.), PFAS can be unintentionally released into the environment at each step, where they subsequently can be taken up by biota and ultimately migrate to the oceans. Bioaccumulation in both aquatic and terrestrial species has been widely observed, but the adverse outcomes to ecological and human health remain largely unknown. Critically, due to the sheer number of PFAS, environmental studies struggle to keep pace with the development and release of next-generation compounds. The rapid expansion of PFAS, combined with their complex environmental interactions, results in a patchwork of data. Whereas the oldest legacy compounds such as perfluorocarboxylic acid (PFOA) and perfluorosulfonic acid (PFOS) have known health impacts, but more recently discovered PFAS of emerging concern are poorly characterized and novel compounds even lack defined chemical structures, much less characterized toxicological endpoints.
Over the past several years, the term PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances) has grown to be emblematic of environmental contamination, garnering public, scientific, and regulatory concern. PFAS are synthesized by two processes, direct fluorination (e.g., electrochemical fluorination) and oligomerization (e.g., fluorotelomerization). More than a megatonne of PFAS is produced yearly, and thousands of PFAS wind up in end-use products. Atmospheric and aqueous fugitive releases during manufacturing, use, and disposal have resulted in the global distribution of these compounds. Volatile PFAS facilitate long-range transport, commonly followed by complex transformation schemes to recalcitrant terminal PFAS, which do not degrade under environmental conditions and thus migrate through the environment and accumulate in biota through multiple pathways. Efforts to remediate PFAS-contaminated matrices still are in their infancy, with much current research targeting drinking water.
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