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'Forever chemicals:' The hidden toxins in your body

February 23, 2023

More than 17,000 sites all over Europe are contaminated by the 'forever chemicals' PFAS, an investigation by the 'Forever Pollution Project' has found. They also accumulate in our bodies. Tim Schauenberg investigates.

Blood test in lab
DW reporter Tim Schauenberg having his blood tested to see if he has "forever chemicals" in his body Image: Cem Adam Springer

The "Forever Pollution Project"has found more than 17,000 sites in Europe that are contaminated by perfluorinated alkylated substances (PFAS). More than 2,000 of these sites can be considered hotspots. 

Known as "forever chemicals" by experts, they could be damaging human health.

Roland Weber, an environmental consultant with the United Nations, describes them as "one of the most threatening chemicals ever invented." 

Some 4,500 human-made substances fall under the PFAS designation, and residues from this family of chemicals are now found across the globe — in soil, drinking water, food, animals and even inside the human body.

A polar bear walking across melting ice
PFAS have even been found in Arctic polar bears Image: Brent Stephenson/Nature Picture Library/Imago Images

Do I have PFAS in my body?

Some 98% of US Americans have PFAS in their blood. Studies from India, Indonesia and the Philippines found the toxic substances in nearly all breastmilk samples tested. Every child in Germany has forever chemicals inside them, and in a fifth of those cases, concentrations exceed critical levels.

This made me wonder about the levels of forever toxins in my own body. Finding out is not easy as there are very few specialist labs in Germany able to perform the necessary tests. But I managed to locate one, IPASUM, in the southern city of Erlangen. 

I sent them a blood sample. It was analyzed for PFOA and PFOS — the best-known forever chemicals which can cause liver and kidney damage, decrease male fertility, and affect the weight of newborn babies as well as the effectiveness of vaccines. In high concentrations, they can lead to cancer. New studies have also indicated a link between the chemicals and severe cases of COVID-19.

A close of someone having their blood taken
Just a small number of specialists labs in Germany test for PFAS Image: Cem Adam Springer

The lab found 4 nanograms of PFOA and PFOS per liter of my blood. That's around a thousandth of the weight of a grain of sand and means I'm well below critical levels and in line with the German average.

Thomas Göen, a professor at IPASUM, who carried out the analysis, told me these concentrations present no risk according to current scientific knowledge. But the results didn't put my mind at ease because the substances are persistent and can accumulate in the body.

"And that's the main problem," Göen said, "that in the end they may accumulate in a dose, which might be a problematic concentration." 

Forever chemicals are so stable that they don't biodegrade in nature, and the human body excretes them very slowly. Scientists are looking for ways to break them down, but any methods are still in their infancy.

How do forever chemicals end up in nature and in us? 

But it's exactly this stability that makes PFAS so useful. Water, fat and dirt resistant, they are are deployed in practically every industry and found in a diverse range of products, including artificial leather, photographic paper,  pesticides, the foam in fire extinguishers, dyes and airplanes.

Humans ingest most PFAS in their food. Fish, meat, milk, eggs and vegetables from contaminated regions can contain particularly high rates of these chemicals.

Most sewage treatment plants can't filter out the chemical residues, which then enter the environment through landfills, industrial waste, and by washing outdoor clothing. PFAS have been found in the remote mountains of Patagonia, snow in Antarctica and the Altai Mountains in Central and East Asia, as well as inside polar bears, birds and dolphins.

A satellite image of earth. Red dots represent contamination with PFAS
PFAS are found all over the world but contamination is often much higher near factories Image: Greenpeace

Some animals with high PFAS concentrations experience changes in their hormone levels as well as to their liver and thyroid function. There has been little research on their impact on ecosystems.

From the atom bomb to the kitchen cupboard

In 1938, US chemicals concern DuPont invented PTFE, one of the first PFAS chemicals. As it was able to protect metal from corrosion at incredibly high temperatures, they used it in the first atomic bomb.

PTFE soon appeared in households around the globe as a durable coating on frying pans under the brand name "Teflon." It was a huge commercial success. 

But in 1998, the nonstick brand found itself in a sticky situation when a livestock farmer said his cows grazing near a Teflon production plant in Parkersburg West Virginia were wasting away and dropping dead.  

A picture of the Fat Man atomic bomb
When the first atomic bomb was secretly built, one of the first PFAS was used for valves and seals to protect against highly reactive uranium hexafluorideImage: picture-alliance/CPA

Robert Bilott, environmental lawyer and longtime defender of the livestock farmer in his legal battle against DuPont, said his client "could see white foaming water coming out of a landfill next to his property." It soon came out that thousands of people in the region had been contaminated with PFAS through sewage from the DuPont factory and leaking landfill waste.

Documents show that DuPont — unlike state authorities — had known of the danger for decades but continued to discharge the toxic substance into the environment.

Studies suggestthat high PFAS levels in the area are connected to increased cases of kidney and testicular cancer. In 2017, DuPont agreed to pay victims $671 million (€554 million) in compensation for bodily harm.

A letter showing DuPont knew about the toxicity of PFAS
DuPont knew for decades about the dangers from the production of Teflon (PTFE), as indicated in this internal document from 1970Image: Ewige Chemikalien, Forever Chemicals, DuPont

Industry gets creative with legal loopholes

Other countries, including the Netherlands, Belgium and Italy, have seen cases of PFAS contaminating drinking water and the environment.

Some of these forever chemicals are now being phased out in the EU, the USA and Japan, and the amount detected in the population has steadily decreased. In Germany, the average has more than halved since 1990.

In response to the crackdown, the chemicals industry is manufacturing a new generation of PFAS that differ very little from their predecessors, but don't fall under the ban for now.

How can I protect myself?

What am I supposed to take from all this? I'm a bit stumped. It feels impossible to avoid something found in so many things but which isn't flagged on labels or packaging.

A tray on a table with empty McDonald's fast food packaging
Fast food packaging often contains PFAS coating. McDonalds wants to phase out the substances by 2022 Image: Ralph Peters/imago images

For now, I've said goodbye to nonstick pans and I'm considering buying a water filter to get rid of any PFAS in my drinking water. It looks like takeaway and convenience food, which I've never been a fan of anyway, will slip even further down the menu, so I can keep away from PFAS-laden disposable packaging. But I'll never be able to turn down a box of frozen spinach — a childhood favorite of mine.

On a global level, the pressure to dispense with PFAS is growing. Following a Greenpeace campaign, outdoor clothing manufacturers Vaude, Paramo and Rotauf committed to detoxing their garments. Swedish furniture giant Ikea says it has also banned the substances, while countries such as Germany, Denmark, Norway and Sweden are pushing for an EU-wide ban on all PFAS by 2030. 

This article was adapted from German.

This article was first published on 11.06.2021 and has been updated to include the latest findings by the "Forever Pollution Project".