Poly- and Perfluorinated Alkyl Substances (PFAS)
From the Series: An Anthropogenic Table of Elements
It was late July in the rural outskirts of Darwin, a time of year when locals are repaid for the stifling humidity of northern Australia’s monsoon with frequent bushfires and temperate dry evenings like this one. I was once again listening to the captain of the local firefighter brigade discuss his innovative methods for battling combustion, sipping one of his favored low-strength beers.1 “You’ll like this,” Allan said, leading me to a rusty oil drum spray-painted with the glyphic messages “AFFF” and “FOAM.” Closer inspection affirmed that the drum contained Aqueous Film Forming Foam, the 3M-manufactured surfactant for suppressing fires that ceased production in 2003 because it contained poly- and perfluorinated alkyl substances (PFAS). A collector of the curious jetsam of the tropical north’s aging infrastructure, Allan told me he kept the drum as yet another curio whose utility would eventually reveal itself. Returning to our earlier topic, he reminded me of his inventive use of “eco” shampoo for firefighting foam. “Probably a lot better for the environment,” he added.
PFAS is often used as a synonym for its most notable members PFOS (perfluorooctane sulfonate) and PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid) but actually names a family of over three thousand different human-made chemicals, united by their common elemental meeting of carbon and fluorine. First synthesized in 1938, these substances proliferated during capitalism’s “golden age,” after the Second World War, as transnational American firms such as DuPont and 3M found they were capable agents for coating cookware (Teflon™), protecting fabrics (Scotchgard™), subduing fires, and manufacturing semiconductors (see Richter, Cordner, and Brown 2018). The aptitude of PFAS for these tasks is based in what we might call, after Roberto Esposito (2013), their double immunology. On the one hand, they are skilled at introjecting themselves between others at a molecular level. On the other hand, these substances are highly chemically stable, resistant to the worlds’ legion invitations to decompose or deform. As an engineer put it to me, no microorganisms have evolved to exploit the carbon-fluorine bond as an ecological niche.
PFAS follow a pharmakon logic—described by João Biehl and Amy Moran-Thomas (2009) and played out by late industrialism—in that their utility is inextricable from their toxicity. Just as they can easily slip between absorbent fibers and staining oils, these substances can also penetrate deep into strata, aquifers, and mammalian bodies. Similarly, their invisibility and lack of taste or smell, vital to their use as surface treatments, also make their presence hard to detect except through laboratory testing. Quietly accumulating in our bodies’ fleshy networks, they can disrupt the connections in the endocrine (hormonal) system, with well-documented correlations to thyroid diseases, cancers, strokes, and severe reproductive problems. From the late 1960s, DuPont and 3M funded studies on this fallout after clusters of birth defects occurred among their workers, though their alarming findings were kept secret. Only in 1999, after a West Virginia beef farmer successfully sued DuPont for poisoning a herd of cattle with PFOA, did exposed workers or publics learn such studies existed. It took a threat to commodified nonhuman life to uncover a threat to human life.
PFOS and PFOA are now banned in many countries, but not in Australia. Despite the UN’s expert assurances that these substances are tied to “significant adverse human health and environmental effects,” a recent federal government factsheet insists there is “not enough information available” to act (Department of Health 2018, 1). The reasons for this denialism are unclear, though activists point to the state’s potentially massive liabilities in relation to defense, airport, and firefighting sites with known PFAS pollution. This includes both the Darwin air base, a short drive from Allan’s house, and the air base at nearby Katherine where, in November 2016, the Department of Defense revealed that firefighting foams used to spray down aircraft had seeped into the town’s water supply and its residents’ blood streams. In both towns, the majority of my firefighting interlocutors have been dubious about the substances’ avowed negative effects. Nonetheless, as their crates of plastic water bottles attest, few will now drink from the Katherine water supply.
As with many other environmental pollutants, epidemiological studies of PFAS over the past two decades have often struggled to delineate the signal of one chemical cause amid the noisy reactive miasma in which we live. We are bodies without baselines. Instead, where harm is now legible in law courts, it is typically in relation to commodified property and not human bodies. A class action lawsuit launched in Katherine last year, for example, seeks restitution for the effects of PFAS on the value of residents’ houses. Industry, in the interim, has sought to parse PFOA and PFOS through familiar capitalist logics of substitution. This takes the form of replacing these infamous chemicals with new “short-chain” PFAS innovations and concealing PFAS waste. As carbon and fluorine surrender their bonds around 1,000°C, processes have been developed to cook polluted soil and other matter into cheap and friable filler for the building industry. Concrete will at once memorialize and erase the perfluorinated past.
When I think of the corroded drum in Allan’s yard now, it appears to me as a monument to an elemental Anthropocene myth of containment. Its toxic contents labeled and sealed, the drum allows us to imagine its presence can be confined, that we are closed systems, and that protection from the forces and actors (some) humans have set loose is still possible. It is this imaginary which, as Michelle Murphy (2017) has argued, underwrites governance and health research approaches which seek to detect and define toxins one at a time, forestalling approaches more in line with the realities of our (unequally) contaminated present. Substances designed specifically to eliminate friction between bodies—to suspend the stickiness of existence and smooth our passage through the world—are now sedimented within us. There is no containing the slippery film of PFAS within our own internal ecologies. We are always and already otherwise to modernity’s purified dreams; always and already alterlife.
1. I have given my interlocutor a pseudonym to protect his anonymity.
Biehl, João, and Amy Moran-Thomas. 2009. "Symptom: Subjectivities, Social Ills, Technologies." Annual Review of Anthropology 38: 267—88.
Department of Health. 2018. “Per- and Poly-Fluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS): Health Effects and Exposure Pathways.” Canberra: Department of Health, Australian Government.
Esposito, Roberto. 2013. "Community, Immunity, Biopolitics." Angelaki 18, no. 3: 83–90.
Murphy, Michelle. 2017. "Alterlife and Decolonial Chemical Relations." Cultural Anthropology 32, no. 4: 494–503.
Richter, Lauren, Alissa Cordner, and Phil Brown. 2018. "Non-Stick Science: Sixty Years of Research and (In)action on Fluorinated Compounds." Social Studies of Science 48, no. 5: 691–714.