PFASs: Complex Chemicals that Could Cause Catastrophic Contamination

WRITTEN BY: Margaret Golden, ISTC staff


When we think of chemicals that could be on our food, we usually think of the pesticides that are used to keep pests out of our food, rarely do we think of the cookware that we use to prepare our food – but maybe we should start. One of the most common ways that people come in contact with PFAS is through cookware, specifically nonstick cookware. PFAS are a collection of man made chemical compounds that are comprised of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) that also include PFOA, PFOS and GenX chemicals. They first came into existence in the middle of the twentieth century and have been used in manufacturing of various products since. Because of their relatively extensive history, they have managed to make their way into water systems and living organisms through leaching and contamination. In addition to cookware, PFASs can be found in a variety of different food packagings, household products, clothing items, fire fighting foams, industrial waste, drinking water, or even living organisms like us.


Chemical Structure for P F O A

Perfluorooctanoic Acid Chemical Structure


chemical structure for P F O S

Perfluorooctanesulfonic Acid Chemical Structure


PFASs contamination is of great concern because they have been proven to cause detrimental effects on the environment and human health. PFASs are stable molecules, which make them resistant to most treatment methods. This resistance to breakdown means they stay in any living organisms that they come in contact with and can even bioaccumulate. Additional research has shown that these chemicals can lead to a wide range of adverse health effects. These effects include immune system deficiencies, low infant birth weights, cancer, thyroid hormone distribution, developmental and liver problems and potentially many more. Water contamination specifically is becoming a large concern. Our neighboring state of Michigan, for instance, is suffering from growing levels of contamination, as if it doesn’t already have enough to worry about with the water crisis in Flint. Drinking water in two Detroit suburbs has tested positive for PFAS contamination. PFASs are also contaminating Michigan’s waterways and its great lake after passing through wastewater facilities. It is clear that PFAS are increasingly becoming more of a problem for our health and the environment.


Thanks to the PFOA Stewardship program, PFASs are no longer produced in the United States. However, people can still come in contact with them through imported goods because they are not yet banned internationally. Because of that, further research on these chemicals is being done all over the country and world. The Illinois Sustainable technology Center (ISTC) has teamed up with the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and the University of California at Riverside to combat this issue and work toward a solution. Researchers from each university are currently investigating the effects of cobalt (Co)-catalyzed defluorination. ISTC is working to connect the PFAS research community and increase public awareness through seminars and conferences surrounding research findings.


The first conference will take place in the beginning of June. ISTC will be collaborating with the Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant and the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering to hold the  2018 Emerging Contaminants in the Aquatic Environment Conference. Be sure to mark your calendars and register online if you’re interested. One speaker to specifically look forward to is Rainer Lohmann – Professor of Oceanography from the University of Rhode Island, who will be doing a keynote presentation on PFAS. PFASs and other emerging contaminants are a problem affecting not only the United States but countries all around the world. With this conference and series of seminars, ISTC hopes to push PFAS fast into the past.

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