For decades, perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFASs) have been used in a wide range of consumer and industrial products, from textiles, to food packaging, building materials, and electronics. Most PFASs are environmentally persistent and many have been linked to adverse health outcomes including cancer, reproductive and developmental toxicity, and endocrine disruption (see Chapter 2). This class of chemicals now contaminates nearly 3000 locations in all 50 U.S. states. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s biomonitoring program, which measures synthetic chemicals and pollutants in a representative sample of the U.S. population, PFASs are found in the blood of nearly all Americans. Accordingly, PFASs are facing increasing regulation at the state, federal, and international level, and there is a growing demand from businesses, workers, and consumers for safer alternatives.
Several of the case studies in this book originated from an innovative project-based graduate course that we started over a decade ago at University of California, Berkeley. The Greener Solutions course began in partnership with the California Department of Toxic Substances Control to pair interdisciplinary graduate student teams with organizations seeking safer alternatives to hazardous chemicals in products or manufacturing processes. Each fall, teams of students from chemistry, engineering, and the environmental health sciences tackle new challenges posed by partner organizations. Student teams adopt a functional approach to identify safer chemistries and materials, seeking system-level changes that avoid the haphazard substitution of one hazardous chemical for another. The premise of the projects is to elevate human health and environmental impacts as design criteria on par with other measures of technical performance. The results—recommendations for green chemistry and bio-inspired design solutions—often simultaneously address additional sustainability goals, such as reduced energy and water use.
Greener Solutions course projects have proposed safer alternatives for preservatives in personal care products, cross-linkers in 3D printing resins, UV blockers in sunscreens, and PFASs in a variety of applications. Projects seeking safer alternatives to PFASs have been a recurring theme in the course, reflecting both the urgency of the health threat these chemicals pose and their ubiquity in the material economy.
The examples in this book provide a practical guide to some existing alternatives to PFASs. Perhaps more importantly, they demonstrate how to broaden the universe of potential solutions by drawing inspiration from biological systems, green chemistry, and circular design thinking. The book also demonstrates how to work in the face of incomplete data to evaluate potential solutions for their technical performance, safety, and sustainability.
Readers will gain fresh insights from this book with new ideas for eliminating PFASs from a wide range of consumer and industrial products. We hope that students, researchers, innovators, and product designers will also be inspired to apply their skills toward designing the next generation of safer chemicals and safer products.
Marty Mulvihill, PhD and Meg Schwarzman, MD, MPH
Berkeley Center for Green Chemistry (BCGC) Board of Directors and co-founders of BCGC’s Greener Solutions course