The convenient consumer products many families grew up with may cause serious human and environmental harm. People who handle items containing per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) remain at heightened risk. This group of chemicals does not break down quickly, and growing evidence indicates protective clothing for PFAS is necessary.
Organizations such as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued dire warnings regarding their hazardous and pervasive nature. These and other organizations also indicate more research is required to truly understand the heightened threat these chemicals pose. That’s why it’s crucial for workers to know how to protect themselves from PFAS contact. By understanding how vulnerable everyday people are to PFAS exposure, employers can take measures to ensure PPE and disposable protective clothing for PFAS remains readily available.
What are PFAS?
The compounds found in PFAS have a fluorine and carbon bond. Resistant to heat, water, and oil, these signature elements are identified in subgroups that include Perfluorooctanoic acid and Perfluorooctanesulfonic acid, as well as an evolving group of non-organic chemicals that runs into the thousands. Because this class of toxins does not break down over extended periods, it has been deemed a group of “Forever Chemicals.”
They have been widely manufactured and used in consumer goods and commercial products dating back to the 1930s. Not considered a significant threat at the time, companies integrated PFAS into hundreds of commercial processes during the 1960s. Unknowingly, the use of PFAS in popular products put workers in harm’s way and put a hazardous chemical into the environment that lasts for years. It wasn’t until the early 2000s that PFAS sampling and research were conducted. Concentrated and long-term exposure has been linked to debilitating health conditions.
Where are PFAS Found?
Widespread use over more than 90 years has effectively tainted the environment on a global scale. The EPA indicates that PFAS can be found in the bloodstream of people and wildlife on every continent. The disposable nature of many consumer goods caused buildups in landfills, and professions such as firefighters still use PFAS in suppressant foams. According to the EPA, PFAS can routinely be found in the following.
- Drinking Water: Disposing of PFAS-laced products resulted in the harmful chemical leaching into groundwater. Nearby private wells and municipal water usually carry trace amounts.
- Manufacturing Plants: Workers engaged in processes that involve chrome plating, textiles, paper, and electronics, among others, are increasingly likely to suffer PFAS exposure.
- Chemical Plants: PFAS use remains pervasive in chemical processes. Protective clothing for PFAS and other hazards is typically mandated by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).
- Food: Fish, livestock, and dairy rank among the foods likely to suffer PFAS exposure. The chemicals often contaminate animal drinking water. Workers handling various phases of food processing are advised to utilize appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE).
- Packaging: Products such food packing papers, containers, pizza boxes, candy wrappers, and even microwave popcorn bags are likely to contain PFAS. Workers who help manufacture these non-stick materials, and those who work with them, may be at an increased risk of exposure.
- Household Products: Many water-repellent products used for clothing, upholstery, and camping tent sealants include PFAS. Non-stick cookware, varnishes, and cleaning products involve differing levels of PFAS.
- Commercial-Grade Products: Professional cleaning services, construction companies, and many others use commercial-strength products with sometimes high levels of PFAS.
- Agricultural Landscapes: Commonly used fertilizers and other products in the farm and ranch sectors include these and other risky chemicals.
Firefighters rank among the most likely to suffer exposure because the tools of the trade include higher concentrations of PFAS. The gear used to protect the brave women and men who put out fires is usually coated with PFAS products. And the aqueous, film-forming foam integrated into hose water has been a source of PFAS since the 1960s.
Now considered controversial, fire companies that deploy this foam create a workplace hazard. Firefighters experience direct exposure when doing their job, and forever chemicals cover the charred remains of fire-involved structures before seeping into the soil.
What are the Health Effects of PFAS Exposure?
It’s important to understand that PFAS efforts once focused on water treatment practices. With little known about these Forever Chemicals, the notion they would cause widespread groundwater contamination was largely not considered. Solids, often in the form of dust, can go airborne and enter workers’ lungs or the environment. Since sampling and testing ramped up two decades ago, a link between PFAS and health conditions was established. According to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, these include the following.
- Increased Cholesterol Levels
- Increased High Blood Pressure Risk
- Increased Risk of Pre-Eclampsia in Pregnant Women
- Increased Risk of Kidney Cancer
- Increased Risk of Testicular Cancer
- Increases Risk of Mammary (Breast Tissue) Tumors in Women
- Decreased Vaccine Response in Children
- Decrease in Infant Birth Weights
- Liver Enzyme Changes
Scientific research continues to examine the relationship between PFAS in the bloodstream and its potentially devastating impact on human health. Studies involving varying degrees of chemical presence and wide-reaching PFAS have been linked to differing outcomes. Investigations into the link indicate high levels found in contaminated water or the workplace are a reason for concern.
What are the Regulatory Standards or Guidance for PFAS?
The EPA issued a health advisory regarding PFAS after peer-reviewed data concluded it posed a risk when found in drinking water. In terms of workers sustaining concentrated exposure, OSHA guidelines revolving around chemical safeguards such as PPE and protective clothing for PFAS are appropriate.
The Hazard Communication Standard (29 CFR 1910.1200(g)), updated by OSHA in 2011, tasks chemical manufacturers, distributors, and importers with maintaining current Safety Data Sheets for hazardous chemicals. The data included must identify the potentially dangerous materials and effectively communicate the contents to users in the supply chain. Descriptive materials, labeling, and the type of hazard must also be communicated via Safety Data Sheets to workers and those who may be indirectly exposed. OSHA mandates the following for laboratories:
- Ensure labels on containers will not be removed.
- Companies will maintain a copy of all Safety Data Sheets.
- Employees are given training regarding hazardous chemical handling.
- Employers will establish a communication program to keep employees updated on risks.
Organizations are also tasked with developing safety measures to prevent workers from skin contact, inhalation, or drinking liquids tainted by PFAS or other hazardous substances. Once employees understand a clear and present danger exists in the workplace, proactive measures such as wearing PPE and protective clothing for PFAS can be implemented.
What PPE Should be Worn When Working with PFAS?
The use of PPE and protective clothing for PFAS ranks among the best protections in terms of direct contact. But significant exposure differences exist among industries, and these issues must be addressed for workers to perform their duties in a safe environment.
Firefighters are considered at heightened risk due to the suppressant foams used to douse fires. Spraying water and chemical agents are likely to make skin contact. And the controversy surrounding fire-resistant outerwear puts first-responders in a tough spot. Wearing lightweight, disposable protective clothing with an appropriate heat rating may be an option to improve protection.
This holds particularly true of those who handle the PFAS foams, handle hose duty, or may be near the spray area. Firefighters and workers in other sectors would be well-served to utilize the following protective clothing for PFAS.
- Aprons: Employees with minimal PFAS contact can improve safety by wearing chemical splash-resistant aprons. This type of disposable protective wear generally prevents torso and lower body contact.
- Coveralls: Those at increased risk of PFAS contact can utilize neck-to-ankle protective wear. Chemical-resistant suits can be accessorized with hoods to enhance splash protection. Some products come with a fixed hoodie in place.
- Shoe Coverings: Liquid PFAS are likely to land on footwear and penetrate the skin. Shoe coverings can eliminate skin contact and protect footwear from contamination.
- Masks: PFAS dust and vapors can unknowingly be inhaled. Given the risk of cancer associated with PFAS reaching the lungs, breathable masks are a primary safeguard.
- Googles: Dust and PFAS liquid splatter can affect the eyes. Once concentrated levels enter the body, health risks come into play.
Since the early 2000s, widespread testing has put scientific field workers at risk. Common sense dictates that PPE for PFAS sampling must be considered a standard safety protocol as well.
How to Protect Yourself from PFAS
Health, safety, and environmental organizations freely admit that not enough research has been conducted to determine the threat level PFAS present. Researchers continue to work diligently to identify sources and understand all the health implications posed by more than 3,000 known PFAS.
Unlike asbestos or DDT, no ban has been placed on corporations using PFAS. That’s why industry leaders and decision-makers must provide hazardous material training and maintain a complete inventory of PPE and protective clothing for PFAS.
The best way to protect yourself from PFAS exposure is to follow hazardous materials protocols outlined in SDSs and wear protective gear. International Enviroguard manufacturers and distributes a complete line of disposable protective clothing and accessories that exceed industry standards for chemicals and chemical splash exposure.