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6 facts about PFAS and Arctic Council efforts to address threats posed by them

PFAS or Per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances is a group of thousands of manufactured chemicals, widely used in industrial and consumer applications since the middle of the 20th century – such as anti-stick frying pans, water-repellent outdoor wear and firefighting foams. Due to their persistence and the adverse human health and environmental effects associated with PFAS exposure, some of them are already listed under the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs), which restricts or prohibits their production and use globally. Others are regulated on a national or regional level but the use of the majority of these chemicals remains unregulated to date. What should we know about PFAS? And how does the Arctic Council contribute to addressing the impacts of PFAS on Arctic communities?

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1. PFAS are known to persist in the environment longer than any other human-made substance.

PFAS are highly persistent in the environment and have been frequently detected in humans, wildlife and environmental media worldwide. In fact, they are known to persist in the environment longer than any other human-made substance and many of them have been found in the Arctic. As a consequence of this persistence, as long as PFAS continue to be released to the environment, humans and other species will be exposed to ever greater concentrations of PFAS. Even if all releases of PFAS were to cease tomorrow, they would continue to be present in the environment, and humans, for generations to come.

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2. Certain PFAS are known to accumulate in humans causing serious health effects such as cancer and liver damage.

Ongoing research aims to understand how exposure to various PFAS can result in a range of health effects. Exposure to certain PFAS has been proven to cause:

  • An increased risk of certain cancers;
  • Liver damage;
  • Higher cholesterol levels and an increased risk of obesity;
  • Depressed immune system function;
  • Fertility problems and increased blood pressure during pregnancy;
  • Developmental concerns (e.g. low birth weight, accelerated puberty, behavioural changes, etc.)

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3. PFAS are usually used where extremely low surface energy or surface tension and/or durable water- and oil-repellency is needed.

Most people in the world have been exposed to some PFAS through touching, drinking, eating, or inhaling particles or vapours from materials containing these chemicals. PFAS are widely used in industrial and consumer applications, usually where extremely low surface energy or surface tension and/or durable water- and oil-repellency is needed, for example in:

  • chromium metal plating, electronics;
  • fire-fighting foams;
  • surface treatment of textiles, carpets and papers;
  • paints, sealants and some personal care products;
  • grease resistant paper, microwave popcorn bags, candy wrappers;
  • specialty plastics (fluoropolymers)

© AMAP 2021

4. The Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme has contributed to the Stockholm Convention negotiations and continues to provide important updates.

The Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme (AMAP) has played a pivotal role in the development and ongoing implementation of the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants. AMAP's early comprehensive pollution assessments provided critical input for the treaty negotiations, highlighting the dangers of persistent organic pollutants (POPs) and advocating for their regulation. The Arctic Council Working Group continues to contribute by assessing emerging threats, such as the interaction between climate change and pollutants, and offering scientific guidance to ensure the Convention adapts to new challenges. Through its work, AMAP bridges science and policy, helping to protect Arctic environments and communities from harmful contaminants. In its 2021 POPs and Chemicals of Emerging Arctic Concern Assessment, AMAP for example recognizes more PFAS as chemicals of emerging Arctic concern that need further study and regulations.

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5. Aqueous film-forming foam or AFFF, used to extinguish flammable liquid fires, is one of the major sources of PFAS.

Aqueous film-forming foams (AFFF) are fire suppression agents used to extinguish flammable liquid fires. Water alone cannot be used effectively to extinguish fires in flammable liquids – in fact in most cases application of water could spread the fire and escalate the consequences. Instead, foam, which will float on a liquid fuel surface, is used. This foam is produced by mixing water with specially formulated chemical concentrates and then adding air to make bubbles that are applied to the fuel surface. This separates the fuel from oxygen in the atmosphere and extinguishes the fire while preventing reignition. AFFF is used by industry, commercial and government sectors for incidents such as fuel storage tank fires, aircraft crash fires, vehicle accidents (including shipping) where fuel spill occurs, and marine facilities handling fuels where there is the potential for a flammable liquid fire.

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6. The Arctic Contaminants Action Program supports transitioning from firefighting foam agents containing PFAS to safer alternatives.

As an important step in addressing the issue of PFAS, the Arctic Council’s Arctic Contaminants Action Program (ACAP), has initiated a project to transition away from firefighting foam agents (AFFF) because of concerns with their environmental and occupational health performance.

As a result of this project, co-led by Finnish Environment Institute (Syke) and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, a Transition Manual for AFFF and Training Modules have been developed. The Manual identifies main AFFF users and applications, as well as provides cost effective and appropriate recommendations for the removal of PFAS-based firefighting foams for all applications within the Arctic region, and suggests replacement by foams that do not have the same environmental and health effect – without jeopardising levels of risk reduction.

Currently, the project is moving on to the pilot phase where ACAP seeks guidance from PFAS and AFFF experts and facilities in the Arctic to scope for consideration future activities to:

  • Gather more information on the presence of PFASs in foams
  • Discuss the transition and use of AFFF alternatives in the Arctic
  • Examine the clean out of systems containing AFFF
  • Recommend remediation best practices and techniques