GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — There is more evidence that shows just how pervasive PFAS compounds — per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances — are around the world.
A new study published this month in the academic journal Environmental Science & Technology Letters shows that many types of toilet paper contain traces of the forever chemicals — enough to be considered a “potentially major source of PFAS” pollution.
The study, conducted by researchers at the University of Florida, analyzed different types of toilet paper sold around the world, including Africa, Europe and North and South America. They tested the toilet paper and then sewage sludge for 34 different types of PFAS compounds.
Based on toilet paper usage, the researchers estimate each person adds between 6.4 and 80 micrograms of PFAS to our wastewater systems each year. Micrograms are an extremely small unit of measurement — one-millionth of a gram. However, the safety limits for PFAS pollution are also exceedingly small, typically measured in parts per trillion.
“Given the known health risks linked to PFAS exposure, it is concerning that these chemicals are present in such a common household item,” Tasha Stoiber, a senior scientist for the Environmental Working Group, said in a release. “This study further demonstrates the ubiquity of these toxic chemicals in our daily lives. We need to reduce PFAS contamination, phase out nonessential uses and protect public health.”
PFAS — referred to as “forever chemicals” because they do not break down naturally — have become one of the most toxic compounds in the world. PFAS compounds were first developed by DuPont in the 1940s and incorporated into thousands of products.
Documents released by EWG show that DuPont and fellow chemical manufacturer 3M knew that PFAS built up in a person’s bloodstream and could potentially be a health hazard as early as the 1950s. But that information was mostly kept private, and it was decades before the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued any hazard warnings or pollution investigations.
After decades of use, the chemicals are so widespread that people are being exposed even before they are born. A Canadian study took samples of cord blood from nearly 2,000 pregnant women and found that PFAS was detectable in more than 90% of the fetuses.
The chemical compounds are still found in everyday products are baked into our food and our land.
An EWG report from 2022 estimated between 2 million and 20 million acres of farmland across the United States are polluted by PFAS simply because farmers unknowingly used tainted sewage sludge as a fertilizer. The chemicals can be found in most of our food, parts collect in our bodies and some pass through in human waste, creating a cycle that helps the compounds spread.
At least some of the PFAS found in toilet paper likely come from paper mills. According to EWG, paper mills, which were also a major factor in widespread PCB pollution, typically use forms of PFAS in the process of converting wood into pulp. However, the researchers found PFAS in both “non-organic” toilet paper and rolls made from recycled goods.
The American Forest & Paper Association pushed back against EWG’s claim, saying that AFPA mills do not use PFAS in the production of toilet paper or other tissue products.
“The University of Florida study examines concentration information in toilet paper for PFAS including PFOA, the most studied PFAS. However, the study fails to acknowledge that PFOA is widespread in the environment. In the study, toilet paper samples tested were close to or below the limit of detection, consistent with PFOA levels found in the environment and not attributable to the manufacturing process,” AFPA Director Tim Ebner said in a release. “Our industry is committed to product and environmental safety, and we continue to lead on product stewardship and innovation in the manufacture of sustainable and essential paper and tissue products.”