The secret source of PFAS

Makeup, non-stick kitchen equipment, waterproof clothing and even dental floss all contain PFAS. A fact that has garnered considerable public attention in the past few years, and rightly so.

This group of so-called forever chemicals can accumulate in nature and via the food chain end up in our bodies with detrimental effects. Research has shown that they damage our immune systems, cause increased risk of cancer, increased cholesterol levels and birth defects – among many other things.

The growing concern about PFAS has led to calls for the complete ban of these chemicals in consumer products.

However, one significant source of PFAS has gone largely unnoticed: the f-gas refrigerants used in AC, refrigeration systems and heat pumps. Modern day refrigerants called HFCs and HFOs are successors to CFCs (aka. Freon) – the ozone depleting substances banned in 1987. They contain fluorine atoms and when escaping into the atmosphere, they degrade into a compound called trifluoroacetic acid, or TFA for short. Some are converted completely into TFA, others only partly.

TFA is one of the more than 12,000 compounds included in the EU definition of PFAS. It is highly soluble in water – returning from the atmosphere to our aquatic environments with rainwater – and accumulates there over time. In a 2021 study, TFA was found in 89% of drinking water boreholes tested in Denmark and once there, it is very difficult to remove.

The solution
TFA is luckily a problem that we can actually solve. We do it by switching to natural refrigerants!

Natural refrigerants are naturally occurring compounds like ammonia, hydrocarbons and even CO2. The do not contain PFAS and are very energy-efficient refrigerants. In other words, we already possess the technology to fix this problem. We just need to implement it.

In 2020, the EU proposed a complete ban on the “most harmful chemicals in consumer products” – including PFAS – as part the updated REACH legislation. Last summer, however, British newspaper The Guardian revealed that, under heavy pressure from the chemical industry, the European Commission was making a hasty retreat. With leaked documents The Guardian showed that the most likely scenario was now a ban on only 10% of these harmful chemicals.

In my humble opinion, it is downright despicable that the EU is bowing to pressure from an industry that makes huge profits off the back of our environment and health. We need to become less beholden to industry interests, so we can work towards sustainable solutions that prioritise environmental stewardship and human well-being over money and profit.

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