“Always chemical” substances, per and polyfluoroalkyls (PFAS), as an emerging threat to soil health

Newswise — Soils are impacted globally by several anthropogenic factors, including chemical pollutants. Of these, perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are of concern due to their high persistence in the environment, which are therefore also referred to as “eternal chemicals” in public discourse. However, their effects on soil structure and function have been largely ignored. A recent study by Dr. Baile Xu and colleagues at Freie Universität Berlin showed that PFAS impact microbial processes in soil, including soil respiration, litter decomposition, and soil structure, as well as than soil pH. These results importance in the fields of soil science, environmental science, ecology and global change have been published in Letters on soil ecology.

One of the important findings of Dr. Xu’s study is that they found that PFAS significantly increased litter decomposition, a key ecosystem process in soil, even at 0.5 ng g-1 for perfluorobutanesulfonic acid. This result deserves great attention, as it likely means that PFAS in soils could already be affecting ecosystem processes, given their current environmental levels. Therefore, cycles of associated nutrients (eg, C and N) in the soil are likely to be affected.

Another interesting result is that the acidic PFAS significantly increased soil pH, rather than decreasing it. “Given the high acidity of PFAS, it is unexpected to observe such a phenomenon,” says Dr. Xu. They speculate that this was attributed to the direct consequence of increased litter decomposition, but not PFAS. A stronger correlation of soil pH with litter decomposition than with PFAS concentration partially validated the hypothesis. In addition, PFAS also exerted adverse effects on soil respiration, microbial population and, more importantly, stable aggregates in soil water.

“As these basic but vital processes and properties are affected by the presence of PFAS, we need to highlight the possibility that PFAS as persistent chemicals are a potential driver of environmental change,” says Dr. Xu. He also mentions that this study is actually a very beginning to investigate the potential impact of this “forever chemical” on the functioning of our Earth ecosystem. “We hope that our interesting findings can inspire further studies to examine the impact of PFAS on soil ecosystem functions in the context of global contamination patterns,” he finally says.


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About Soil Ecology Letters

Soil Ecology Letters is an international journal for the rapid publication of original research articles of scientific significance that describe and explain ecological processes occurring in soil. He also publishes letters to the editor, insights, reviews, comments, and more. The scope of Soil Ecology Letters is broad and includes all aspects of recent research in soil ecology. Some of the topics that are attracting increasing attention are soil biodiversity, soil microbial interactions and food web, soil microbiome, soil-plant interactions, soil biogeochemical cycle, soil bioremediation and restoration, soil multifunctionality, the response and adaptation of soil biota to environmental change, and breakthrough technologies, new theories and modeling of soil ecological processes.