17:00 PM

The Forever Headache From Forever Chemicals

CEE Associate Professor Carla Ng led a discussion on PFAS chemicals as part of the Carnegie Science Center’s Café Scientifique program

PFAS may be the perfect group of chemicals - but for the wrong reasons.

From fire fighting foams to non-stick pans, these chemicals can do it all. But, their vast capabilities come at a great cost to our health. Per- and polyfluorinated alkyl substances (PFAS) are chemicals that are useful in a variety of industries because of their properties and durability, but do not naturally break down in the environment or human body. These “forever chemicals” can cause a number of health concerns like cancer, thyroid disease and reproductive impairment.  

Carla Ng, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Pittsburgh Swanson School of Engineering, has devoted much of her career to studying common sources of PFAS contamination–like food packaging–and collaborating to create roadmaps that reduce non-essential uses of PFAS, stop human and environmental exposure from getting worse, and more equitably distribute the associated costs. 

She recently led a discussion with curious Pittsburghers about these “forever chemicals” at the Carnegie Science Center’s Café Scientifique – from their toxic beginnings to their hopeful end. 

Carla Ng at the Carnegie Science Center

 PFAS are everywhere. And it’s hard to escape them. 

When PFAS were discovered in their earliest form, scientists believed it was a revolution in materials science. And it was. 

This unique chemical class was being used to create useful, at-home products like Teflon and even in areas of the Manhattan Project. Compared to other chemical compounds, their uniqueness comes from their surface activity as they are capable of repelling both water and oil. 

Despite society being more cognizant of their risks, these chemicals are still being widely used today for specialized fire fighting foams, personal care products, food packaging, and even breathable textiles – the list goes on. 

“PFAS are everywhere, and it’s hard to escape them,” Ng said. 

The Environmental Working Group created an interactive map for users to track PFAS contamination throughout the United States. States with higher levels typically have the most research completed behind them, Ng noted. 

But, what about Pittsburgh specifically? 

“If you live near a site with contaminated water like an airport or military site, your primary route of being exposed to these chemicals is through your drinking water,” Ng said. “However, in Pittsburgh, we don’t have very high levels of it in our water here, so it’s likely from our food.” 

There have been some local environmental disasters that led to contamination in the area, too. In McKeesport’s Lower 10th Ward, exterminating a fire with foam led to the area’s water being contaminated with these harmful chemicals. Though the water has been proven finally safe to drink based on the EPA’s recently updated standards, Ng’s lab is working to find if the PFAS also contaminated the soil. 

There’s hope – PFAS may not be essential for living 

There was a time before PFAS was used for everything and anything. Can we ever go back to that? 

“Even if we are able to now stop the use of these PFAS chemicals, the problem is with these forever chemical properties that they have,” Ng said. “It’s going to be a really long time before the environment is clean again.”    

The question still lies if PFAS really is an essential item. Ng and other researchers have been turning towards the Essential-Use Concept–a measure used to phase out dangerous substances–to determine if there are ethical, non-harmful alternatives that will allow us to stop using PFAS.

It’s possible to find a suitable replacement for a nonstick pan and dental floss, but for PFAS being used in green technology, safety suits and medical devices, the solution becomes a bit more complicated. 

“The importance is that this shouldn’t be permanent, and we need to have innovation to drive the creation of replacements of these compounds,” Ng said. 

There are things that can be done at home to lower the risk of contamination. Both granular activated carbon (GAC) and reverse osmosis filters can reduce PFAS levels in drinking water. There’s still a gray area when it comes to disposing household items that contain these chemicals as they just typically end up in landfills – creating a cyclical problem as regulations of PFAS are still coming to light. 

“We’re a bit in the wild west,” Ng said.

Café Scientifique, presented by PPG, is a program held at the Carnegie Science Center for anyone looking to learn and discuss today’s most probing scientific questions with local experts. Ng’s talk, “Stuck on You: How Nonstick Chemicals Became a Forever Headache,” was the latest segment featured in the series.