Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) have been in the news recently. The United States Environmental Protection Agency recently released a three-year plan to study and regulate these “forever chemicals,” which have been found in sources of drinking water. PFAS have also been linked to numerous detrimental health effects, making them a concern for public health officials.
PFAS leak into the natural environment in various ways: pollution from waste treatment plants, runoff from military bases, careless drainage from factories into local water sources. However, many environmental scientists believed that the ocean was the “final resting place of PFAS,” presenting a small— albeit flawed— solution to the presence of PFAS in drinking water. If these chemicals find their way to the largest bodies of water in the world, they shouldn’t be able to harm humans further.
A new study published in Environmental Science and Technology refutes this claim. Scientists can no longer ignore PFAS when they are in the oceans because the ocean is spitting them back at us in the form of sea spray. This means that aerosolized sea spray droplets are now being investigated as another source of PFAS into the atmosphere.
Previously, scientists calculated that sea spray droplets could concentrate PFAS greatly, but this study was the first time that they were observed entering the atmosphere. Researchers at Stockholm University monitored sea spray from two Norwegian coastlines over the course of two years (2018-2020). Researchers monitored the concentrations of PFAS and sodium ions (a marker of aerosolized sea spray) and noticed significant correlations between the two in the atmosphere. This indicated that the PFAS in the atmosphere originated from the sea spray on the coasts they were observing.
The amount of PFAS expelled from the sea spray isn’t enough to directly harm human health via exposure— for instance, if one were standing on a beach. Much more troubling is the possibility that aerosolized PFAS could travel inland, polluting a much wider area. PFAS in the atmosphere can spend upwards of 10 hours drifting, spanning over 300 km.
Now we have a better idea of how PFAS invade our atmosphere, which has been puzzling environmental scientists for a while. However, it raises significant concerns about the levels of PFAS in the environment, and these forever chemicals may be more pervasive than we realize.