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Highlighting the Need for Global Efforts to Curb PFAS Pollution

Aarhus University research indicates the need for a global effort to curb PFAS pollution. The substance suppresses the immune system, increasing the risk of infections and cancer, and PFAS can decrease the efficiency of vaccination programs against diseases such as diphtheria, tetanus, influenza, and COVID-19.

Highlighting the Need for Global Efforts to Curb PFAS Pollution
Polar bears and seals are still an important food source in hunting communities in Greenland. Image Credit: Rune Dietz

Even though they live far away from sources of contamination with per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), the hunting community in Ittoqqotoormiit (Scoresby Sound), Northeast Greenland, has some of the highest concentrations of PFAS in their blood.

PFAS is found in a wide range of products, including textiles, carpets, shoes, food packaging, cosmetics, fire foam, and pesticides.

The compounds are transported to the Arctic over long distances by the atmosphere and ocean currents. When PFAS are released into the environment, they are bio-magnified and spread throughout the food chain.

Predators at the top of the food chain, like toothed whales, ringed seals, and polar bears, have high PFAS concentrations, and the high levels in East Greenland’s indigenous population are thus primarily obtained from their food.

The research, published in the prestigious journal Lancet Planetary Health, found that 92% of Ittoqqortoormiit residents have far more PFAS in their bodies than the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) recommends to avoid immune system damage.

Furthermore, 86% of the population has blood values that are higher than the EFSA’s threshold value for serious risk of immune system damage.

Lacking Knowledge About Danish Sources

In Greenland, PFAS concentrations in the population’s blood are significantly lower than in Denmark, the Faroe Islands, and the United Kingdom, but still too high. As a result, there is a high risk of immune system damage here as well. The inhabitants of the Faroe Islands consume pilot whales, which also have high levels of PFAS.

In Denmark, and most other places in Europe, we lack a thorough knowledge about PFAS pollution. For example, we don't know the levels in fish, grazing animals, including the game that hunters shoot.

Christian Sonne, Professor, Department of Ecoscience and Arctic Research Centre, Aarhus University

Cattle that grazed near the Korsr fire drill site, for example, had particularly high levels of PFAS, and it was identified in members of the local cattle guild who consumed the cattle.

A Global Problem

The recent study reveals that PFAS pollution is crucial in many parts of the world, and Christian Sonne emphasizes that to phase out PFAS, national and regional legislation must work in tandem with the UN’s sustainable development goals and the Stockholm Convention.

If measures are not taken quickly, such as a ban on PFAS and the use of alternatives to PFAS, pollution of the environment will continue to threaten public health around the world.

Christian Sonne, Professor, Department of Ecoscience and Arctic Research Centre, Aarhus University

The European Chemicals Agency published a proposal on February 7th, 2023, to restrict the production, use, and marketing of over 10,000 PFAS substances in the EU. The proposal’s aim is to minimize the spread of PFAS substances. In general, the use of PFAS will be prohibited in the EU, but not in certain pesticides. Similar actions are being taken in the United States.

According to the researchers, PFAS levels in the blood are typically higher in European and North American countries than in Asian and African countries. The greatest concentrations were observed (in descending order) in Greenland, the Faroe Islands, Denmark, Australia, Sweden, Norway, Malaysia, the USA, Taiwan, Greece, Poland, Spain, and Iceland.

Journal Reference:

Sonne, C., et al. (2023). Assessment of exposure to perfluorinated industrial substances and risk of immune suppression in Greenland and its global context: a mixed-methods study. Lancet Planetary Health.

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