The group of per- and polyfluoroalkyl compounds (PFAS) is found in many household products and in food packaging. These substances are of concern because of their persistence and possible toxicity to humans and wildlife. Since the compounds do not break down naturally, they become environmental pollutants. Now, researchers working in environmental sciences and technology have studied the transport of 29 PFASs to and from the Arctic Ocean, finding these hazardous substances for the first time in Arctic seawater. The research is published by the American Chemical Society’s Environmental Science & Technology journal.
After studies showed that two PFASs – perfluorooctane and perfluorooctanesulfonic acids – can cause cancer, compromised immune responses, and other health problems in laboratory animals, the two components were voluntarily phased out by industry.
However, these compounds are still found in the environment, and quite often. Hexafluoropropylene oxide dimeric acid (HFPO-DA, marketed under the GenX brand name) was thought to be intended as a safe replacement for perfluorooctanoic acid. However, it also appears to cause similar health problems.
The scientists wanted to investigate the transport of hazardous substances at a site in the Arctic Ocean. It is a remote body of water connected to the Atlantic Ocean by the Fram Strait, which lies between Svalbard and Greenland.
Onboard an icebreaking research vessel, the team took water samples along two currents of the Strait of Frams entering and exiting the Arctic Ocean, and along the route from the North Sea of Europe to the Arctic Ocean. Using mass spectrometry, the researchers found 11 PFAS in ocean water, including perfluorooctanoic acid, its “less dangerous” substitute, HFPO-DA, and other PFAS residues.
This was the first time that hexafluoropropylene oxide dimeric acid was detected in seawater from a distant region, indicating the possibility of long-range transport of this compound. Higher levels of PFAS have been found in water discharging from the Arctic Ocean compared to water entering the Arctic from the North Atlantic.
The composition of PFAS in the “outgoing” water showed that most of these compounds originated from atmospheric sources than from ocean circulation.