Perfluorocarbons (PFCs): What do you need to know?

The below article talks about perfluorocarbon, its uses, the impacts it has on the world around us, along with some frequently asked questions about the same. 

Can humans breathe liquid perfluorocarbon?

Perfluorocarbons (PFCs) are man-made chemical compounds that only contain carbon and fluorine. In general, they are colorless, odorless, chemically inert for the most part, and is a non-flammable gas in normal temperatures. PFC is considered to be a greenhouse gas capable of rapidly bringing on climate change due to its high global warming potential. In recent studies, several researchers have found that there is a potential for liquid breathing with help of PFCs, though it is researched extensively, there are yet more solid results to be produced that ensure the same. The below article will also talk more about how liquid PFC could be used for liquid breathing. 

Perfluorocarbons (PFCs)

PFCs are man-made chemical compounds that only contain carbon and fluorine. They are powerful greenhouse gases that have the immense capability to deplete the ozone layer. PFCs have been used for a long time in place of other chemicals due to their effectiveness and efficiency in regard to certain chemical reactions required for industrial activities. For example, PFCs replace chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) in the manufacture of semiconductors. They are also used in the electronics industry, as refrigerants for specialized systems, it was also used for soundproofing in windows in earlier times, etc. They are also emitted as a by-product during the production of aluminum. Over the years, researchers began recognizing that PFCs have long-term impacts on our surrounding ecosystems including immediate or long-term harmful effects to the environment and biological diversity of an area and it constitutes a danger to all lives and health. 

PFC gases do not occur naturally in the environment, and since it is chemically synthesized the pathway into the surrounding environment is usually through the air from industrial processes. As mentioned earlier, these are potent gases that can have devastating impacts on the environment and health. It has been found to positively lead to the global increase in temperatures, cause harm to marine ecosystems, a rise of the sea levels, etc. In humans, PFCs have been found to contribute to damage in the liver and kidneys, along with mild to severe eye and skin irritations. In accordance with global and national agreements, PFC regulations are given under the UN Framework on Climate Change (UNFCCC), EU MMR (525/2013/EU), EU ETS (2003/87/EU), and the EU F-gas regulation (517/2014/EU). Certain UN protocols including the PRTRs and EU E-PRTR create a regulatory framework for data collection for PFCs and other chemical compounds. 

PFCs have a higher global warming potential (GWP) than carbon, however, since they are usually used in small quantities, they are not given as much importance in comparison to other greenhouse gases. Since several regulations have been set forward aiming to control PFC emissions, global emission rates have declined by 42% since 1995. The largest sources of PFCs included aluminum production stakeholders. For example, aluminum production in the UK contributed to approximately 56% of PFC emissions in 1995, in 2011, it still contributed to 45% of PFC emissions. There is significant proof that addressing large PFC emitters and their activities could significantly reduce the concentration of PFC in the atmosphere, this was perfectly encapsulated when the latest aluminum production plant in the UK was shut down in March 2012, which brought down the sector’s significant contribution to PFC emissions to just 2% in 2013. In recent years, electronics industries have been contributing to PFC emissions. 

Below is a chart that depicts the UK’s transition of PFC emissions from 1990 to 2019. 

Source: NAEI, 2019

In recent years, there have been several studies conducted on breathing liquids. In this research, liquid PFC has played a very important role. German researchers, Thomas Janke and Dr. Katrin Bauer have found startling information which reveals that liquid PFC could be a perfect breathing medium, due to its highly efficient capability of dissolving oxygen, but can also act as an anti-inflammatory for human tissue (Phys Org., 2017). Though there is much to be understood about the long-term practicalities of liquid breathing, it has been creating waves into the area. 

Using liquid PFC in the future as a breathing medium requires that researchers are able to understand elements such as measurement of dissolved oxygen concentrations during liquid ventilation, understanding how much can be absorbed by the body and how much would be released, etc. In theory, liquid ventilation could be proven largely useful, especially for the treatment of severely distressed patients including individuals with severe pulmonary or cardiac trauma. It has also been postulated that it could be beneficial for space travel, deep diving, treat pulmonary distress in premature babies, treat asthma and other respiratory disorders through a PFC emulsion that could be used via an inhaler for chronically ill patients who have lost lung capacity, etc. Though this is significant in terms of advancing research and medical science, fact remains that PFCs are highly toxic and polluting to the environment and could fastrack the planet’s movement towards global climate change. 

Below is an image that depicts how a liquid PFC emulsion could address respiratory disorders. Source: Carroll D., 2017

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs): Is perfluorocarbon harmful to my health?

What are f-gases?

Group f-gases or fluorinated gases are chemically synthesized or man-made gases that can trigger significant greenhouse effects and are thus greenhouse gases. They are used in a range of industrial activities and are sometimes used in relation to other severely ozone-depleting chemicals. There are 4 types of f-gases, namely: hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), perfluorocarbons (PFCs), sulfur hexafluoride (SF6), and nitrogen trifluoride (NF3). It is estimated that by 2050, up to 20% of all greenhouse gas emissions would be from f-gases (EIA, 2014). They are mostly used in air conditioners, refrigerants, semiconductors, foam or aerosol cans, etc. Here is a link to a youtube video that interestingly explains f-gases and what are our next steps.

How long can PFCs last in the atmosphere?

Among the most potent man-made greenhouse gases are PFCs, as they have a large global warming potential and have extraordinary atmospheric lifetimes that can last anywhere between 10,000 to 50,000 years (Khalil M. A. K., et.al., 2003). 

Other FAQs about Air quality that you may be interested in.

Why is oxygen important to air quality?

Changes to atmospheric pressure due to changes in temperature

What is the air quality level in Xian, China?

References 

Carroll D. (2017). A breath of fresh perfluorocarbon. Carnegie Mellon University. College of Engineering. Viewed on 02-17-2022. https://engineering.cmu.edu/news-events/news/2017/11/20-nelson-perfluorocarbon.html 

European Environment Agency (EEA). (n.d.). Perfluorocarbons (PFCs). EPER Chemicals Glossary. Viewed on 02-17-2022. https://www.eea.europa.eu/help/glossary/eper-chemicals-glossary/perfluorocarbons-pfcs#:~:text=Perfluorocarbons%20(PFCs)%20are%20man%2D,the%20most%20part%20chemically%20unreactive

Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA). (2014, May 23). What are F-gases? YouTube. Viewed on 02-17-2022. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IC0F1PSxqck 

Government of Canada. (n.d.). Perfluorocarbons (PFCs). List of Toxic Substances managed under CEPA (Schedule 1). Viewed on 02-17-2022. https://ec.gc.ca/toxiques-toxics/Default.asp?lang=En&n=AA329670-1 

Khalil M. A. K., Rasmussen R. A., Culbertson J. A., Prins J. M., Grimsrud E. P., & Shearer M. J. (2003). Atmospheric Perfluorocarbons. Environmental Science and Technology. 37(19). pp. 4358 – 4361. Viewed on 02-17-2022. https://sci-hub.hkvisa.net/10.1021/es030327a 

National Atmospheric Emissions Inventory (NAEI). (2019). About PFCs. Pollutant Information. Govt. of UK. Viewed on 02-17-2022. https://naei.beis.gov.uk/overview/pollutants?pollutant_id=PFCs 

Natur Vårds Verket. (n.d.). Perfluorocarbons (PFCs). Swedish pollutant release and transfer register. Viewed on 02-17-2022. https://utslappisiffror.naturvardsverket.se/en/substances/greenhouse-gases/perfluorocarbons/ 

Phys Org. (2017, March 14). Liquid breathing moves a step closer thanks to measurement study. Institute of Physics. Viewed on 02-17-2022. https://phys.org/news/2017-03-liquid-closer.html 

Snyder P. (2018, January 26). Can you breathe perfluorocarbons? Viewed on Quora. Viewed on 02-17-2022. https://www.quora.com/Can-you-breathe-perfluorocarbons 

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