PFAS, synthetic turf and a new planetary boundary proposed and being exceeded

Very concerning. Increasing production and use of Forever chemicals, that is, the thousands of chemicals in the PFAS class: Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances. These are not natural chemicals, and they do not break down in the environment. The chemicals are widely used. According to the Department of Health they are not manufactured in Australia, although plenty of products that use PFAS are imported.

PFAS is spread widely through water pollution and oceans and as aerosols in the atmosphere contaminating soils. PFAS chemicals are found very widely across the earth in rainfall. So, our water resources  are now contaminated.

My attention was drawn to this Euronews article. It sums up the recent scientific findings and outlines the issues: Rainwater everywhere on Earth unsafe to drink due to ‘forever chemicals’, study finds

Fluorine signatures and PFAS chemicals have been found in synthetic turf matting and fibers in the USA and in Sweden. With the study in Sweden the researchers say the presence of PFAS chemicals “we believe these results to be broadly translatable to Artificial turfs globally”.

PFAS found in rainwater in most global regions

I found the Science Alert article which stated, “The contamination is consistent even in remote areas like the Tibetan Plateau, where researchers found some chemicals exceed EPA guidelines by 14-fold.
​​”Based on the latest US guidelines for PFOA in drinking water, rainwater everywhere would be judged unsafe to drink,” says environmental chemist Ian Cousins from Stockholm University in Sweden.

“Although in the industrial world we don’t often drink rainwater, many people around the world expect it to be safe to drink and it supplies many of our drinking water sources.”

I then checked the study itself, published on 2 August 2022: Outside the Safe Operating Space of a New Planetary Boundary for Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS)

It basically says the safe guidelines limits for PFAS class of chemicals has been reducing. It is now common that PFAS contamination on a wide scale is in excess of these guidelines.
So the authors propose a new planetary boundary for Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances, and that we are already exceeding that boundary.

Read the Abstract:

“It is hypothesized that environmental contamination by per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) defines a separate planetary boundary and that this boundary has been exceeded. This hypothesis is tested by comparing the levels of four selected perfluoroalkyl acids (PFAAs) (i.e., perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS), perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), perfluorohexanesulfonic acid (PFHxS), and perfluorononanoic acid (PFNA)) in various global environmental media (i.e., rainwater, soils, and surface waters) with recently proposed guideline levels. On the basis of the four PFAAs considered, it is concluded that (1) levels of PFOA and PFOS in rainwater often greatly exceed US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Lifetime Drinking Water Health Advisory levels and the sum of the aforementioned four PFAAs (Σ4 PFAS) in rainwater is often above Danish drinking water limit values also based on Σ4 PFAS; (2) levels of PFOS in rainwater are often above Environmental Quality Standard for Inland European Union Surface Water; and (3) atmospheric deposition also leads to global soils being ubiquitously contaminated and to be often above proposed Dutch guideline values. It is, therefore, concluded that the global spread of these four PFAAs in the atmosphere has led to the planetary boundary for chemical pollution being exceeded. Levels of PFAAs in atmospheric deposition are especially poorly reversible because of the high persistence of PFAAs and their ability to continuously cycle in the hydrosphere, including on sea spray aerosols emitted from the oceans. Because of the poor reversibility of environmental exposure to PFAS and their associated effects, it is vitally important that PFAS uses and emissions are rapidly restricted.”

PFAS detection in rainwater

PFAS chemicals were part of the novel entities planetary boundary which contains plastics, microplastics and other chemical polutants. A study published in January 2022 identified we were already outside the planetary boundary for novel entities.

My interest in plastics pollution, microplastics was generated by reading research on synthetic turf. In the US synthetic turf is manufactured using PFAS chemicals to extrude the polyethylene fibres without clogging up the machines. In the US trace PFAS has been confirmed on synthetic turf pitches.
(see University of Massachusetts Toxic Use Reduction Institute (TURI) website on PFAS  most particularly 2020 Factcheet on PFAS in Artificial Turf Carpet  )

So what are the PFAS human health effects?

Sources: US National Toxicology Program, (2016); C8 Health Project Reports, (2012); WHO IARC, (2017); Barry et al., (2013); Fenton et al., (2009); and White et al., (2011). 

PFAS chemicals are bioaccumulators, so they accumulate over time. This is a large class of chemicals and the human impacts have only been determined for a small subset of chemicals in this class. Many of these chemicals are being used with poor information on toxicity.

This October 2020 article provides a reasonably current review of the science on health effects of PFAS chemicals: Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substance Toxicity and Human Health Review: Current State of Knowledge and Strategies for Informing Future Research.

“Epidemiological studies have revealed associations between exposure to specific PFAS and a variety of health effects, including altered immune and thyroid function, liver disease, lipid and insulin dysregulation, kidney disease, adverse reproductive and developmental outcomes, and cancer. “

A recent study published in August 2022 identified one PFAS chemical – PFOS  (perfluorooctanesulfonic acid) –  has been linked to liver cancer in humans.  One of the uses of PFOS was as a key ingredient in the water-repelling product commercially known as Scotchguard. Use of the chemical in this product was phased out early this century. Read more at Science Alert article.

Read a 2016 factsheet on PFAS from Australian Depaertment of Health here: https://www1.health.gov.au/internet/main/publishing.nsf/content/A12B57E41EC9F326CA257BF0001F9E7D/$File/PFAS-factsheet-15June2016.pdf

Graham Peaslee is a physicist with Notre Dame University who has done extensive research into PFAS detection in the environment and consumer products containing PFAS chemicals such as waterproof fabrics, cosmetics, food packaging. Worth reading his news page.

PFAS in synthetic turf?

The Swedish study found in the Artificial turf pitches analyzed (from a variety of manufacturers, including outside of Sweden) that they contained 0.315–17.439 kg of Fluorine per field.
The section on ‘Implications for Human and Environmental Exposure’ raises that presence of PFAS in artificial turf may well be a global problem. 
I have not seen any reports on Fluorine or PFAS detection tests conducted on artificial turf samples in Australia. 
On the health impacts of synthetic turf (June 2021) Sarah Evans, PhD, MPH Assistant Professor Children’s Environmental Health Center Department of Environmental Medicine and Public Health Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, New York, in a letter to local municipal authorities raises several concerns on synthetic turf and its health impacts including that PFAS contamination has been detected in wetland environments close to synthetic turf pitches.

“Few studies have assessed potential chemical exposures from the artificial grass blades and backing materials used on synthetic playing fields. A recent study identified perfluoroalkyl chemicals (PFAS), a class of chemicals linked to numerous health problems including cancer, nervous system toxicity, immune dysfunction, thyroid, and cardiovascular disease in the plastic grass blades and backing used on artificial turf fields16,17. PFAS are persistent pollutants that have been shown to contaminate wetlands and drinking water. These findings raise concerns about PFAS groundwater contamination from turf field run off and emphasize the need for further examination of exposures that may occur from turf components other than infill. “

For an average FIFA synthetic turf soccer pitch :
  • 274 tonnes is how much waste a FIFA sized pitch plastic carpet and infill generates to landfill as waste at end of life. (8-15 years), that will break down into microplastics, nanoplastics, potentially leach out chemical pollution (including possibly PFAS class of chemicals) into waterways and terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems. (Report for FIFA, Eunomia Research 2017)
  • 2.98 metric tons per year Infill loss – The average loss of performance infill on examined pitches. It is above the top-up quantity (2.68 metric tons per year)  (Bertling et al Oct 2021)
  • Between 50 kilograms to over 1 metric ton Fiber loss from an average pitch per year as a microplastic pollutant (may contain PFAS chemicals). (Bertling et al Oct 2021)
  • 0.315–17.439 kg of Fluorine per field. Signature chemical to indicate possible presence of PFAS class of chemicals. Samples were from a variety of fields from different manufacturers. Authors postulate this may be a global issue of synthetic turf. (Lauria et al 2022) 
Even if there are recycling streams established for synthetic turf matting and synthetic fibers to be recycled in Australia, any PFAS chemicals contained in these will go into the melted plastics and any end products produced from this, to continue the contamination within the environment. 
As PFAS chemicals are a forever chemical and a bioaccumulator it poses questions of direct or indirect human impact and long term environmental impact. When Artificial Turf breaks down (fiber loss) and leaves the pitch, or when the old pitch is disposed of as landfill or recycled, it poses an environmental pollution problem contributing to the PFAS cycle 
First image is of the PFAS cycle sourced from the Conversation article. Second image is of PFAS in rainwater from global regions. Third  image is from a 2020 review of epidemiological studies on health impacts of some PFAS chemicals.


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