blue and pink cancer cells on a black background.
Cancer cells (Image Credit: Unsplash, The National Cancer Institute)

Michael Sheen has joined the hosts of BBC Radio 4’s award-winning podcast Buried, to expose a story that is being called ‘one of the UK’s darkest environmental secrets.’

Buried: The Last Witness, hosted by Dan Ashby and Lucy Taylor, will feature the final testimony of one of the first-ever whistleblowers on ‘forever chemicals’, recorded by the actor Michael Sheen.

The environmental documentary podcast will delve into a box of unseen evidence and affidavits from a dead witness and is set to come out on June 24.

But what are forever chemicals? And should you be worried about them?

What are ‘forever chemicals’?

‘Forever chemicals’ is an umbrella term for a group of chemicals called per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) – substances that are entirely man-made.

In technical terms, they are made up of chains of carbon and fluorine atoms held together by some of the strongest chemical bonds in nature.

Dr Darren Lee, 36, a senior lecturer in sustainable chemistry at Nottingham Trent University’s School of Science and Technology, says: “PFAS have carbon fluorine bonds in them, and the reason people are so interested and using those is because the bond is a really strong bond and it’s also really unreactive.

“But the consequence is that, because it’s so unreactive, it can be a real pain to get rid of.”

Why are they called ‘forever chemicals’?

The name ‘forever chemicals’ comes from the fact that they can take thousands of years to break down.

It is estimated there are around 15,000 different PFAS according to chemical database CompTox.

PFAS are everywhere in everyday products like skincare, clothing, frying pans and firefighting foam. They have even been reportedly found in water and food supplies around the world.

Are ‘forever chemicals’ harmful?

For Dr Lee the biggest worry and challenge caused by PFAS is: “Once it’s in your body, what can you do about it?”

He adds: “When they start to get into the body, these things breakdown and get smaller and smaller into the nanoparticle scale. Then they can start to move around in your body, which is the worrying thing.”

The DuPont Study

A study in the US from 2005 to 2013 involved taking blood samples from 69,000 people who lived near a DuPont plant in south-west Parkersburg.

The DuPont plant had emitted a PFAS into the air and Ohio River from the 1950s till the 2000s, reaching water supplies in the area.

The study found that for the people living near the DuPont plant, there was a “probable link” between exposure to a PFAS called perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and six diseases: high cholesterol, ulcerative colitis, thyroid disease, testicular cancer, kidney cancer and pregnancy-induced hypertension.

To be impacted on such a level from exposure to PFAS you would need to be exposed to extremely high concentrations of the chemicals for a long period of time.

What is the future of ‘forever chemicals?

The future of PFAS is uncertain. Charity CHEM Trust, who work to prevent synthetic chemicals from causing long term damage to wildlife and humans, are calling for a ban on PFAS.

“No one gave their consent to be exposed to these harmful chemicals,” says a spokesperson for the charity. “We haven’t had the choice to opt out, and now we have to live with this toxic legacy for decades to come.

“The very least we can do is to stop adding to this toxic burden by banning the use of PFAS as a group.”

A ban would not solve the problem as a whole with Dr Lee pointing out it may create more complications.

Dr Lee says: “The problem is twofold really; how do you deal with what’s already there?

“And how do you go forward with making the things you need to make using another chemical?”