Making the connection between PFAS and fossil fuels

Besides emitting actual PFAS, the factories that manufacture and work with the substances emit potent greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change.
A red biohazard suit on display next to an American flag. The suit appears to be placed over a mannequin.
A biohazard suit, made possible by PFAS and fossil fuels, is seen in 2021 at New Hampshire's Saint-Gobain plastics factory, a major source of PFAS contamination. Photo by Annie Ropeik.

Editor’s Note: The following story first appeared in The Maine Monitor’s free environmental newsletter, Climate Monitor, that is delivered to inboxes for every Friday morning. Sign up for the free newsletter to get important environmental news by registering at this link.

I’ve always thought of PFAS, or “forever chemicals,” as a kind of climate change issue. To be sure, the widespread contamination of our environment and bodies with these persistent, toxic chemicals does not need a climate connection to be hugely important. But both fall under the same broad umbrella anyway: that of oil extraction, industrial chemistry and the capitalist economy.

In “Toms River: A Story of Science and Salvation,” the Pulitzer Prize-winning book that shaped most of how I think about environmental health, journalist Dan Fagin describes how the modern chemical industry was born from the coal tar that proliferated in Europe and America during the Industrial Revolution — “arguably, the first large-scale industrial waste.” The hydrocarbons that make up fossil fuels, Fagin says, “proved extremely useful to the new world of chemical fabrication for the same reason that hydrogen and carbon are vital to the chemistry of life.” They created long, durable chains of atoms that allowed complex molecular life to blossom.

“Now, upon the stable platform of the hydrocarbon polymers in coal tar, chemists began to build a galaxy of new materials that were stronger, more attractive, and cheaper than what nature provided,” Fagin writes. “Dyes came first, soon followed by paints, solvents, aspirin, sweeteners, laxatives, detergents, inks, anesthetics, cosmetics, adhesives, photographic materials, roofing, resins, and the first primitive plastics—all synthetic and all derived from coal tar, the fountainhead of commercial chemistry.”

PFAS are synthetic, fluorinated hydrocarbons, where fluorine takes the place of most of the hydrogen, according to a recent article in Cosmos. Like most everything that’s now the product of organic chemistry, the creation of PFAS built upon those first substances derived from coal. They were created using those same kinds of chemical processes to offer properties that can seem supernatural — burnt eggs sliding off a Teflon pan, water beading on a Gore-Tex jacket, fire snuffed on a jet fuel-soaked runway.

Like most aspects of modern capitalism, the applications for PFAS are totally entangled with petrochemicals. Besides being the key ingredient in firefighting foam designed to target jet fuel; they’ve been used to coat, protect and strengthen all manner of oil-derived plastics. Data shows that demand for plastics could be what drives oil extraction in the coming decades.

Besides emitting actual PFAS, the factories that manufacture and work with the substances emit potent greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change. The chemical industry is the largest energy user in the U.S., a major emitter overall and the prime customer for feedstocks from oil and gas refining — used in everything from plastics to fertilizer, which incidentally ties in industrial agriculture to this discussion as well. For years, the American Petroleum Institute was led by a former head of the American Chemistry Council, which lobbies against PFAS regulation and counts oil majors among its members. The two often side together on issues like pushing for more fossil fuel extraction.

The point of this rabbit hole is no surprise: All these huge, extractive industries are connected and share common goals that often conflict with environmental health. We can also see this in their use of the same basic disinformation playbook. Just as Exxon worked to downplay the climate risks of fossil fuels in the 1970s, documents also show 3M worked to suppress the health risks of the PFAS they and other companies pioneered.

Many other endocrine disruptors, like dioxins, stem even more directly from fossil fuels than PFAS. But even today, corporations that profit from less regulation of all of these substances maintain a skeptical posture — even when these health risks are more supported by science than ever before.


To read the full edition of this newsletter, see Climate Monitor: The PFAS and climate change connection.

Annie Ropeik has been given the keys to the Climate Monitor newsletter while its regular author, the Monitor’s environmental reporter Kate Cough, is on leave until November. Reach Annie with story ideas at:

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Annie Ropeik

Annie Ropeik is an independent climate journalist in Camden. She previously reported for Spectrum News Maine in Portland and spent about a decade as a local public radio reporter in Alaska, Delaware, Indiana and New Hampshire. Her award-winning energy and environment reporting has appeared in Energy News Network and Inside Climate News and on NPR, the CBC and podcasts such as Outside/In and Living on Earth. A Maryland native and Boston University graduate, Annie serves on the board of the Society of Environmental Journalists.
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