Recent research from the University of Birmingham reveals that toxic PFAS chemicals, often dubbed "forever chemicals," can be absorbed through human skin at levels much higher than previously believed. This discovery has significant implications for water conservation and the drilling industry, as these chemicals are persistent environmental contaminants.

The study utilized lab-grown tissue mimicking human skin to determine the extent of PFAS absorption. Lead author Oddný Ragnarsdóttir explained that "uptake through the skin could be a significant source of exposure to these harmful chemicals." This new understanding highlights the importance of water conservation efforts, as PFAS contamination often originates from industrial processes and a lack of water conservation efforts. 

PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, encompass about 16,000 compounds used to make products resistant to water, stains, and heat. Known for their persistence in the environment, these chemicals have been linked to various health issues, including cancer, birth defects, liver disease, and thyroid disease. The chemicals do not naturally break down and accumulate in humans over time.

Traditionally, human exposure to PFAS has been attributed to contaminated water and diet. However, this new research indicates that skin absorption is also a significant route of exposure. This finding is particularly relevant for water conservationists, water well drillers, and hydrogeologists that need uncontaminated water supplies nationwide. 

The study examined 17 different PFAS compounds applied to a three-dimensional tissue model, measuring the absorption rates. It was found that the skin absorbed substantial amounts of 15 PFAS compounds, including 13.5% of PFOA, a particularly toxic and common PFAS. Prolonged exposure increased the absorption rate to 38%. Notably, smaller "short-chain" PFAS compounds, now more commonly produced by the industry as supposedly safer alternatives, were absorbed at even higher levels—up to nearly 60%.

"This is important because we see a shift in industry towards chemicals with shorter chain lengths because these are believed to be less toxic – however, the trade-off might be that we absorb more of them, so we need to know more about the risks involved," said study co-author Stuart Harrad.

The drilling industry must recognize the potential for PFAS exposure through skin contact and the broader implications for water conservation. Contaminated water sources used in drilling operations can lead to widespread environmental and health impacts. By adopting stringent water conservation practices and monitoring PFAS levels in water sources, the industry can mitigate the risks associated with these persistent chemicals.

As the study indicates, PFAS used in personal care products or makeup were previously thought to be safe due to their ionized molecules repelling water. However, Ragnarsdóttir’s research demonstrates that this assumption does not always hold true, emphasizing the need for caution and further investigation.

For drilling industry professionals, understanding and addressing the risks of PFAS exposure is crucial. This research underscores the importance of water conservation not only for environmental protection but also for safeguarding worker health. As we continue to explore the impacts of PFAS, adopting best practices in water management will be essential in minimizing the presence of these harmful chemicals in our operations and environments. However, with SCOTUS overturning the Chevron Doctrine, it's quickly becoming a larger issue without the steps to mitigate these problems.