"Regrettable substitutions": Why it's hard to ban "forever" chemicals, according to experts

We're drowning in a soup of chemicals. Experts explain how these chemicals help in our daily lives — and pose heal

By Matthew Rozsa

Staff Writer

Published July 1, 2023 1:59PM (EDT)

This photograph taken on January 10, 2023 shows a pile of recyclable plastic trash at the Syctom waste management company in Paris. (THOMAS SAMSON/AFP via Getty Images)
This photograph taken on January 10, 2023 shows a pile of recyclable plastic trash at the Syctom waste management company in Paris. (THOMAS SAMSON/AFP via Getty Images)

Teflon is probably the most famous of the products made with "forever chemicals," but it is far from alone among them. Although one would hope that governments would heavily regulate a product linked to serious health issues like cancer, high blood pressure and infertility, chemicals known as PFAS (short for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances) are largely able to slip under the radar. This is in large part because of a process known as regrettable substitution — and experts tell Salon that it is helping polluters literally destroy human life on this planet.

"This nickname is forever chemicals, and I think this nickname correctly states it best, because they are very persistent chemicals that accumulate in our bodies."

Regrettable substitution is a term for when chemical companies bypass regulations meant to protect the public by making minor modifications to a banned or overseen substance. Since "forever chemicals" can be very easily manipulated in this way, companies create endless varieties of essentially the same or similar PFAS, while technically being able to tell regulators that they are manufacturing something different. With this effectively limitless number of forever chemicals, companies have been able to use PFAS in a wide range of products: From nonstick cookware to microwaveable popcorn bags, from food boxes to takeout containers, from receipt paper to pizza boxes, from waterproof clothes to umbrella coating, from water bottles to dental floss.

PFAS come in many different varieties. As of 2019, more than 4,700 have been documented, making it so that analyzing them can be like reading a bowl of alphabet soup. Take, for example, PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid), PFOS (perfluorooctanoic sulfonic acid), HFPO-DA (commonly known as GenX Chemicals, hexafluoropropylene oxide dimer acid), PFHxS (perfluorohexane sulfonic acid), PFOS (perfluorooctane sulfonic acid) and PFNA (perfluorononanoic acid), to name just a few. How did we get flooded with so many unpronouncable, strange chemicals?

This is in large part because the prevalence of regrettable substitution has created an endless variety of them. Dr. Anna Reade, senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), elaborated on this process to Salon.

"There are two really good examples that are supported by just a ton of evidence now," Reade explained, mentioning the two different PFAS known as PFOA and PFOS. PFOA at one point was predominantly used to make Teflon, Reade pointed out, while PFOS was used to create Scotchgard — and both became controversial. "When those came under scrutiny, one of the big substitutions was to use a four-carbon version of PFOS instead" and, when all was said and done, "what they did was they just used a different chain length, exactly the same molecule, but just a shorter version of it, a smaller version."

In the end, "they switched to that and said it was safe because there wasn't any data on it," Reade said. A similar story unfolded with PFOA, where companies "added a couple of oxygens into the tail and said it was different and safe. That's Gen X. Those are two of the main substitutions that happened after the first legacy PFAS chemicals came under scrutiny."

The names of these chemicals can be confusing, as well as the complex chemistry used to make them, but if we think in terms of their properties, it can be easier to follow how these chemicals help in our daily lives — and how they also might pose serious health risks.

"You think about it in terms of things like waterproof mascara, right?" Reade explained. "How is it so waterproof? PFAS are in a lot of products, and I think a lot of times you can actually identify [the PFAS] through the function they provide."

For example, fluoropolymers are a type of PFAS used to make products like wire insulation, satellite wiring and fiber-optic cladding and cable. "You wouldn't pour that onto a table and it would be soap. It would actually look what people are often more familiar with," Reade said. "It's like that thin coating of Teflon on a pan, right? It's actually millions of individual PFAS bonded together to make kind of a sheet of PFAS. You almost could think of it as a material, but it's a polymer."

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"Even if we turned off the tap on all of our production of PFAS today, we have already severely contaminated our environment."

Dr. Katie Pelch, a scientist at NRDC, elaborated that if one had to visualize PFAS, it would be easiest to remember that "they look like our consumer products because they're in so many of our consumer products. They either coat them or our consumer products are derived from them." For example, "raincoats, textile treatments on your sofa, they are the things that we see every day in and around our homes." You can get a sense of the physical property of those PFAS used to repel water "because they repel water, because they repel stains, because they are greaseproof. You see the function that they add when they're added to consumer products. Slick, slippery."

The chameleon-like nature of PFAS goes a long way toward explaining why they are such a problematic class of chemicals. Because PFAS are present in so many commonly-used products, studies show that most humans have them in their bloodstream. PFAS are connected to so many diseases that their prevalence in our environment poses an inevitable health crisis, particularly as they are linked to more and more ailments from liver disease to thyroid disease. Even worse, there is a good reason why they are known as "forever chemicals."

"This nickname is forever chemicals — and I think this nickname correctly states it best — because they are very persistent chemicals that accumulate in our bodies," Jitka Straková, Global Researcher at IPEN (International Pollutants Elimination Network), told Salon. "Once they are released into environment, they really stay in the environment forever. "

As a result, Pelch ruefully observed that merely strengthening chemical regulations will not be enough to help humanity. The existing PFAS will need to be cleaned up.

"Even if we turned off the tap on all of our production of PFAS today, we have already severely contaminated our environment," Pelch explained. "So we need solutions that help remove PFAS from the environment, remove PFAS from drinking water and from all of our contaminated land and air. We need to set safe drinking water standards while also removing PFAS from all of our consumer and industrial products where they're not essential."

She noted that although the chemistry industries often claim that improving regulations will lead to problems with obtaining quality medical equipment or clean energy, the pollution is so severe that innovation can solve it. Indeed, when there were past problems with dangerous products like firefighter foam, consumer outrage eventually yielded the necessary results.

"Now there are multiple options available that work really well that do not use PFAS, and that's because we are innovative enough to figure out a safer solution," Pelch added. "That's one of the things that we're really working on, is trying to encourage people to find a better way."

Certainly people will not be able to protect themselves from PFAS as they might from most other pollutants — by visually identifying them, and then avoiding them.

"It's quite common to say about PFAS chemicals that we cannot recognize them by smelling them, touching them," Straková told Salon. "You basically cannot visualize or use other senses to recognize when we are exposed to PFAS-contaminated water. It's something that makes the PFAS issue even more problematic than other pollution issues because people basically cannot say if PFAS are present in their drinking or other water resources. Only sophisticated laboratory tests can prove if PFAS are present in water."

By Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a staff writer at Salon. He received a Master's Degree in History from Rutgers-Newark in 2012 and was awarded a science journalism fellowship from the Metcalf Institute in 2022.

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Chemical Pollution Deep Dive Forever Chemicals Pfas Pfoa Reporting Teflon