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Water is life: 'Forever chemicals'

  • Water is life: 'Forever chemicals'

About the blog

John Mmbaga
PhD (Chemistry) student at the University of Nairobi with an interest in ag nutrient and metal recovery from water. Currently researching on materials for recovery of phosphates and nitrates for reuse as controlled release fertilizers.
ACCIONA
Idrica

Rarely are nicknames used when describing serious pollutants in our water.

But ‘forever chemicals’ attract a nickname for a couple of reasons:

Firstly, they are so many in number (some estimates put them at around 5000 or so).

It is therefore simpler to lump them together using an attribute they have in common:

Their inability to degrade making them long term water pollutants.

Secondly, these plastic- related chemicals are used to manufacture a wide range of products we use every day:

Teflon (a type of plastic), scotchgard, waterproof rain gear, dental floss, eyeliner, food packaging, carpeting, firefighting foam and a wide range of textiles, food wrappings, plastic bottles, containers and even the boxes we carry when headed home to grab that sumptuous pizza!

But thirdly, these complex mixture of industrial chemicals (which might as well be in our households) are associated with health complications if ingested through water or inhaled from our air over time.

They have been associated with a variety of cancers, thyroid disorders, kidney disease, autoimmune disruptions, liver disease, high cholesterol, developmental problems in fetuses, Parkinson’s disease, bone disease and more.

This might seem like high class sensationalization…

I even thought so myself.

But not until I came across an article on The Guardian highlighting the plight of a small town community in the state of New Hampshire, US.

Merrimack

Any rural community embraces a new industry which also comes with it’s fair share of benefits such as employment opportunities.

But the inhabitants of Merrimack overtime realized that though the St. Gobain industrial facility produced specialized coated fabrics and industrial chemicals, there was an increased instances of cardiovascular disease and aggressive cancers especially among children in the locality.

Upon testing ground water sources around the facility, it was discovered that it had an exceptionally high concentration of a special type of substances called ‘forever chemicals’.

While the national upper limit of these substances in water was 12 ppt (parts per trillion), the waters around the industrial facility had a concentration of 70,000 ppt of ‘forever chemicals’ in the groundwater, a discovery that was both shocking and eye- opening.

Ever since the establishment of the industry, effluents from the factories had been building up in the town’s underground water leading to increased health complications among the residents.

'Forever chemicals'

Being compounds of the carbon/ fluorine covalent bond, ‘forever chemicals’ are used in various applications such as fire retardants, textiles and in food wrappings.

But perhaps what makes them most attractive to industrial players is the stability of the carbon-fluorine bond.

Thermodynamically, it is nearly impossible to break it under normal circumstances making ‘forever chemicals’ the best candidates for products which require long term use…

Packaging…

Fabrics…

Containers. etc.

But what happens when these substances percolate into our water, soil, air or food?

They persist for ages resisting any form of breakdown.

And as more stuff is produced, more ‘forever chemical’ by-products are released into the environment leading to a build up in our drinking water sources.

In our bodies, these substances persist over the years building up in our fatty tissues until that critical moment when they affect our health.

Lifestyle diseases 

From cancer to hypertension…

From high cholesterol to major organ failure

From reproductive problems to bone disease…

‘Forever chemicals’ mess up people’s health if ingested continuously over time.

But the worrying thing is we just might be taking them in without our knowledge.

Industry

If stricter industrial protocols in Western nations have not managed these chemicals, what guarantees do we have that our water, soil and air is safe?

More environmentally conscious administrations like that of Canada have even placed bans on specific types of ‘forever chemicals’ called PFOS (perfluorooctane sulfonic acid).

However, there might still be others out there in industry especially in developing nations like Kenya which depend on raw material imports from nations like China.

Perfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS) and Perfluorooctanoic Acid (PFOA) are the other brands of ‘forever chemicals’ that need to be continously monitored in our water, air and soils.

Having ‘forever’ in their name-tag doesn’t make them invincible.

In conclusion

More resources from institutions of higher learning and governments needs to go into mapping the extent of ‘forever chemical’ pollution especially of our underground water sources near urban centres.

Lobbying for legislation to ban the use of these products must be set in motion.

Like-minded groups must agitate our parliamenterians into action.

But we also must realize that these chemicals won’t go away any time soon even if their usage is stopped abruptly.

Chemical engineers, water chemists and other interested innovators need to test different ways of filtering them out of our water so that they don’t gain an entry point into the food chain.

We can all do something about it…

Even if it is for the sake of our children.

Originally posted on John Mmbaga's Blog

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