Toilet paper a source of toxic PFAS in wastewater, study finds
- PFAS are synthetic chemicals found in a variety of products that are harmful to our environment.
- Researchers from the University of Florida have found that is likely a major source of PFAS entering our wastewater.
- For one specific type of PFAS, toilet paper contributes about 4% of it to sewage in the United States and Canada, and up to 89% in France.
Synthetic chemicals called PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances) are used in a variety of products, including cosmetics, cleaning products, and nonstick cookware.
Because many PFAS do not break down in landfills and can contaminate sources of drinking water for both humans and animals, they are considered harmful to the environment. Additionally, exposure to PFAS has been linked to various health concerns.
Now, researchers from the University of Florida have found that toilet paper is also a source of PFAS in wastewater.
For a specific type of PFAS — called “disubstituted polyfluoroalkyl phosphates” (diPAPs) — researchers found toilet paper contributes about 4% of it to sewage in the United States and Canada, 35% in Sweden, and up to 89% in France.
This was the most common type of PFAS detected in both toilet paper and wastewater sludge.
The study findings are reported in a paper recently published in the American Chemical Society’s journal Environmental Science & Technology.
What are PFAS?
The term “PFAS” refers to a family of more than 9,000 different types of man-made chemicals. First introduced in the late 1930s, PFAS continue to be found in a variety of products including:
- stain-resistant carpeting and fabrics
- cleaning products
- cosmetics and personal care products
- firefighting foam
- nonstick cookware
- water-repellent clothing
- products that are oil, grease, or water-resistant.
For over 20 years, the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey has measured the amount of PFAS in the blood of Americans. The survey found most people in the U.S. have amounts of PFAS in their bloodstream.
Previous research links PFAS exposure to a variety of potential health issues, including:
- liver damage
- kidney disease
- thyroid issues
- metabolic problems
- certain types of cancers, including prostate cancer, kidney cancer, testicular cancer, and ovarian cancer
- gestational diabetes.
Why are PFAs in wastewater a problem?
PFAS are nicknamed “forever chemicals” because they do not easily break down in landfills and sewage. This means they can contaminate the land and water, causing a problem for humans and wildlife.
A study in 2020 found that PFAS were “nearly ubiquitous” in surface water, which is the main source of drinking water in the U.S.
According to Rebecca Fuoco, director of science communications at the Green Science Policy Institute, not involved in the current study, PFAS from products used in homes and businesses are flushed down the drain to wastewater treatment plants.
“These facilities typically can’t remove PFAS, so the chemicals pass through into treated water and biosolids,” she told Medical News Today.
“Land application of biosolids can contaminate agricultural soils, which can lead to contamination of food crops and livestock,” she explained.
“PFAS [are] well recognized to be present in domestic wastewater,” added Prof. Timothy Townsend, a professor of environmental engineering at the University of Florida and the senior and corresponding author of the new study.
“Regulatory agencies, scientists, and utilities continue to examine the role wastewater plays as a source of PFAS to the environment and the possible implications,” noted Prof. Townsend.
Toilet paper and PFAS
For this study, Prof. Townsend and his team decided to examine the potential impact toilet paper might have on PFAS levels in wastewater.
“We recently published a study on PFAS in biosolids, which points to 6:2 diPAP as one of the major PFAS — not all studies look for this — in wastewater residuals,” he told to MNT.
“We explored where this chemical is commonly used and one such product is paper. Hence the look at toilet paper,” he explained
Researchers obtained toilet paper rolls sold in Africa, Western Europe, and North, South, and Central America. They also collected sewage samples from U.S. wastewater treatment plants.
After extracting PFAS samples from both the paper and sewage samples, scientists found that the most abundant type of PFAS was 6:2 diPAP.
The research team then combined their data with other studies that measured PFAS levels in sewage and the amount of toilet paper used in various countries.
Upon analysis, Prof. Townsend and his team found toilet paper contributed about 4% of 6:2 diPAP in sewage in the United States and Canada, 35% in Sweden, and up to 89% in France.
“Through our search in the literature, we found that 6:2 diPAP concentrations were lower in French and Swedish sludge compared to the U.S.,” Prof. Townsend detailed.
“At the levels 6:2 diPAP was encountered in U.S. biosolids, a simple mass balance suggests other sources must provide a major contribution relative to toilet paper itself. Other such sources of 6:2 diPAP potentially include cosmetics, textiles, and food packaging.”
– Prof. Timothy Townsend
“The large contribution estimated from other countries resulted from the lower concentrations of 6:2 diPAP reported in the literature for these locations,” he continued.
“The percentage estimates are based on available reports and should not be interpreted as exact, but the larger outcome is that based on the current data, toilet paper might be an appreciable contributor to wastewater sludge PFAS, and likely contributes more in some countries than others,” added Prof. Townsend.
How can we reduce PFAS?
With PFAS in so many everyday products, what can people do to help reduce the amount of PFAS that ends up in our wastewater?
“Consumers should opt for PFAS-free products wherever possible and ask their favorite brands to eliminate all unnecessary uses of PFAS,” advised Fuoco.
“When shopping for makeup and personal care products, avoid anything with perfluor-, polyfluor-, and PTFE on the label. Avoid clothing and shoes advertised as waterproof or stain-resistant,” she suggested. “You can also consult our growing list of PFAS-free products.”
“As for toilet paper, recent testing [by eco-wellness product-investigating brand MAMAVATION] identified products with no detectable PFAS,” Fuoco continued.
“Manufacturers should work with scientists to identify and root out PFAS in the toilet paper supply chain. Not all brands tested have detectable PFAS, which suggests there are unnecessary uses of — or alternatives to — these chemicals in the manufacturing process,” she added.
In Prof. Townsend’s words, “PFAS are ubiquitous in modern consumer products.” The researcher expressed a hope that “by understanding potential PFAS sources, decision-makers are better equipped to address the challenge of PFAS.
“We [will] continue our research to examine the occurrence and fate of PFAS in different waste streams. Our group received some suggestions to investigate toilet paper made from alternative sources such as bamboo,” Prof. Townsend added.
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