PFAS ‘chemicals forever’ are widespread and threatening human health – here is a strategy to protect the public

Carol Kwiatkowski, North Carolina State University

Like many inventions, the discovery of Teflon happened by accident. In 1938, chemists at Dupont (now Chemours) were studying cooling gases when, to their great surprise, a concoction solidified. Upon examination, they discovered that not only was it the slipperiest substance they had ever seen, it was non-corrosive and extremely stable, with a high melting point.

In 1954 the revolutionary “non-stick” Teflon pan was introduced. Since then, a whole class of man-made chemicals has evolved: per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, better known as PFAS. There are more than 6,000 of these chemicals. Many are used for stain, grease and waterproofing. PFAS are found in clothing, plastic, food packaging, electronics, personal care products, fire-fighting foam, medical devices, and numerous other products.

But over time, evidence has slowly developed that some commonly used PFAS are toxic and can cause cancer. It took 50 years to understand that the serendipitous discovery of Teflon was actually a train wreck.

As a public health analyst, I have studied the harm caused by these chemicals. I am one of hundreds of scientists calling for a comprehensive, effective plan to manage the entire class of PFAS to protect public health while developing safer alternatives.

When the US Environmental Protection Agency evaluates chemicals for potential harm, they typically examine one substance at a time. That approach doesn’t work for PFAS, given the sheer number of them and the fact that manufacturers often replace toxic substances with “unfortunate substitutes” — similar, lesser-known chemicals that also threaten human health and the environment.

As PFAS are manufactured and used, they can migrate to soil and water. MI DEQ

Toxic chemicals

A class action lawsuit brought this issue to national attention in 2005. Workers at a DuPont plant in Parkersburg, West Virginia, joined with local residents to sue the company for releasing millions of pounds of one of these chemicals, known as PFOA, into the air and the Ohio River. Lawyers discovered that the company knew PFOA could damage the liver as early as 1961.

The lawsuit was eventually settled in 2017 for $670 million after conducting an eight-year study of tens of thousands of people exposed to the virus. Based on multiple scientific studies, this review concluded that there is a likely association between exposure to PFOA and six disease categories: diagnosed high cholesterol, ulcerative colitis, thyroid disease, testicular cancer, kidney cancer, and pregnancy-related hypertension.

Over the past two decades, hundreds of peer-reviewed scientific papers have shown that many PFAS are not only toxic – they do not fully break down in the environment and have accumulated in the bodies of humans and animals around the world. Some studies have detected PFAS in 99% of people tested. Others have found PFAS in wildlife including polar bears, dolphins and seals.

Attorney Robert Billott describes the lawsuit against Dupont for knowingly releasing millions of pounds of hazardous PFOA in Parkersburg, West Virginia.

Widespread and persistent

PFAS are often referred to as “forever chemicals” because they are not completely degraded. They move easily through air and water, can travel great distances quickly, and accumulate in sediments, soil, and plants. They have also been found in dust and foods including eggs, meat, milk, fish, fruits and vegetables.

In the human and animal body, PFAS accumulate in various organs, tissues and cells. The US National Toxicology Program and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have confirmed a long list of health risks, including immunotoxicity, testicular and kidney cancer, liver damage, reduced fertility, and thyroid disease.

Children are even more vulnerable than adults because they absorb more PFAS from food, water and air relative to their body weight. Children also put their hands in their mouths more often, their metabolism and immune system are less developed. Studies show that these chemicals harm children by causing kidney dysfunction, delayed puberty, asthma and altered immune function.

Researchers have also documented that PFAS exposure reduces the effectiveness of vaccines, which is of particular concern given the COVID-19 pandemic.

Regulation lags behind

PFAS have become so ubiquitous in the environment that health experts say it’s probably impossible to completely prevent exposure. These substances are released throughout their life cycle, from chemical production to product use and disposal. Up to 80% of pollution from common PFAS like PFOA comes from the production of fluoropolymers that use toxic PFAS as processing aids to make products like Teflon.

In 2009, the EPA set a health guideline for PFOA in drinking water at 400 parts per trillion. Health Advices are not mandatory regulations – they are technical guidelines for state, local and tribal governments, which have the primary responsibility for regulating public water systems.

In 2016, the agency drastically lowered that recommendation to 70 parts per trillion. Some states have set much higher protection levels – as low as 8 parts per trillion.

According to a recent estimate by the Environmental Working Group, a public health advocacy group, as many as 110 million Americans could be drinking PFAS-contaminated water. Even with the most advanced treatment methods, it is extremely difficult and expensive to remove these chemicals from drinking water. And it is impossible to clean up lakes, river systems or oceans. Nonetheless, PFAS are largely unregulated by the federal government, despite receiving increasing attention from Congress.

water treatment tanks
Part of a filtration system to remove PFAS from drinking water, Horsham Water and Sewer Authority, Horsham, Pennsylvania. Bastiaan Slabbers/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Reducing PFAS risks at the source

Given that PFAS pollution is so pervasive and difficult to eradicate, many health experts claim that the only way to address it is to reduce PFAS production and use as much as possible.

Awareness campaigns and consumer pressure make a difference. Many forward-thinking companies, including grocers, clothing manufacturers and furniture stores, have removed PFAS from the products they use and sell.

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State governments have also stepped in. California recently banned PFAS in fire-fighting foams. Maine and Washington have banned PFAS in food packaging. Other federal states are considering similar measures.

I am part of a group of scientists from universities, non-profit organizations, and government agencies in the US and Europe who have worked to manage the entire class of PFAS chemicals as a group, rather than individually. We also support an “essential use” approach that limits their production and use only to products that are critical to the health and smooth functioning of society, such as: B. medical devices and safety equipment. And we recommended developing safer non-PFAS alternatives.

As the EPA recognizes, there is an urgent need for innovative solutions to PFAS pollution. Guided by good science, I believe we can effectively manage PFAS to reduce further damage while researchers find ways to eliminate what has already been released.

Carol Kwiatkowski, Associate Associate Professor of Biological Sciences, North Carolina State University

This article was republished by The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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