PFAS do not stay in the sea, study finds

Many of the toxic per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) that wash into the ocean are re-emitted into the air, new research has found.

A Stockholm University study, published this week in Environmental Science & Technology, suggests that this sea-to-air transport process can lead to an increase in PFAS air pollution and contaminated drinking water in coastal areas.

PFAS are known as ‘forever chemicals’ because they never break down in the environment. There are around 9,000 of them and they are used in a vast range of applications in consumer products and industrial processes.

According to Matthew Salter, a co-author of the study and researcher at Stockholm University’s nvironmental science department, it was previously thought that PFAS would eventually wash off into the oceans “where they would stay to be diluted over the timescale of decades”.

However, the study has revealed a “boomerang effect” in which some PFAS are transported back to shore and then are re-emitted into air with the crashing of waves. These chemicals can be transported long distances and then deposited back onto land, said Salter.

READ MORE: Revealed: The gaps in DEFRA’s knowledge about toxic PFAS pollution in the UK

PFAS are associated with a wide range of serious health harms, including cancer, learning and behavioral problems in children, infertility and pregnancy complications, increased cholesterol, and immune system problems.

“It is possible that atmospherically deposited PFAS could contaminate coastal drinking water sources for the foreseeable future,” said Professor Ian Cousins, another study co-author.

“Our study gives a new dimension to the meaning of the term forever chemicals. Even the PFAS we thought would be lost to the sea boomerang back for us to be exposed all over again.”