PFAS - the “forever chemicals” in the spotlight


Perfluorinated alkyl substances (PFAS) ensure that rain jackets remain waterproof, are an essential ingredient to many firefighting foams and were widely used for the production of Teflon no-stick pans. However, these so-called forever chemicals remain stable in the environment, where they accumulate and pose a potential threat to human and environmental health. According to current research, PFAS in the environment are exceeding their planetary boundary, which could have detrimental effects on ecosystem functioning and biodiversity. In a recent article in the Standard, Gabriel Sigmund from EDGE and other Austrian colleagues discussed the topic of PFAS and the problems linked to it.

So far, only two of the more than 4000 compounds counted among the PFAS are regulated. The industry reacts to regulation by using new substances -often without considering how these new substances may affect the environment in a similar way to the chemicals they are replacing. Scientists call this a "regrettable subtitution". In the article, Gabriel Sigmund explains, among other things, the dangers of this procedure. "The fundamental problem of using mobile, persistent and potentially toxic substances is not solved, but simply shifted to other and underexplored substances with similar properties and hazards," he explains. The pollution problem may even be worsened. To counteract this, he says, a better exchange of information between science on the one hand and authorities and industry on the other is needed. "In principle, persistent chemicals should be avoided as far as possible in line with the precautionary principle," he demands.

Gabriel Sigmund and his colleagues at EDGE are investigating chemical pollution and are specifically addressing, among other things, the question of how the exchange between actors - e.g. between researchers and policy makers - can be improved and what possibilities there may be, for example, to remediate contaminated soils. He is also involved in a number of initiatives to improve collaborations and information exchange between ecologists, ecotoxicologists, environmental scientists, regulators and industry.