PFAS 'forever chemicals' are widespread and threaten human health – here's a strategy for protecting the public
Abandoned fire fighting foam after a fire in Pennsylvania. These foams often contain PFAS chemicals that can contaminate the water supply. Bastiaan Slabbers / NurPhoto via Getty Images
Like many inventions, the discovery of Teflon was accidental. In 1938 chemists from Dupont (now Chemours) were investigating refrigerant gases when, to their surprise, a preparation solidified. Upon examination, they found that not only was it the smoothest substance they had ever seen - it was also 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 to seal off stains, grease and water. PFAS can be found in clothing, plastic, food packaging, electronics, personal care products, fire-fighting foams, medical devices, and numerous other products.
However, over time it has slowly been shown that some commonly used PFAS are toxic and can cause cancer. It took 50 years to understand that the lucky accident of Teflon's discovery was actually a train wreck.
As a public health analyst, I've researched the harm these chemicals cause. I am one of hundreds of scientists calling for a comprehensive, effective plan to manage the entire PFAS class to protect public health while developing safer alternatives.
When the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency examines chemicals for potential harm, it typically examines one substance at a time. This approach does not work at PFAS because of the number of manufacturers and the fact that manufacturers often replace toxic substances with "unfortunate substitutes" - similar, lesser-known chemicals that are also harmful to human health and the environment.
Graphic showing how PFAS moves in soil and water from many sources
A class action lawsuit in 2005 drew national attention to this issue. Employees at a DuPont plant in Parkersburg, West Virginia, along with local residents, sued the company for releasing millions of pounds of one of those chemicals known as PFOA into the air and the Ohio River. Lawyers noted that the company knew PFOA could damage the liver as early as 1961.
The lawsuit was finally settled in 2017 for $ 670 million after an eight-year study involving tens of thousands of exposed people. Based on several scientific studies, this review concluded that there is a likely association between exposure to PFOA and six categories of disease: diagnosed high cholesterol, ulcerative colitis, thyroid disease, testicular cancer, kidney cancer, and pregnancy-related high blood pressure.
Over the past two decades, hundreds of peer-reviewed scientific papers have shown that many PFAS are not only toxic, but also do not degrade completely in the environment and have accumulated in the bodies of humans and animals around the world. Some studies have shown PFAS in 99% of the people tested. Others have found PFAS in wildlife, including polar bears, dolphins, and seals.
Widespread and persistent
PFAS are often referred to as "forever chemicals" because they do not break down completely. They move easily through air and water, can travel long distances quickly, and accumulate in sediments, soils and plants. They have also been found in dust and food, including eggs, meat, milk, fish, fruits, and vegetables.
In the bodies of humans and animals, PFAS focuses on various organs, tissues, and cells. The U.S. National Toxicology Program and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have confirmed a long list of health risks, including immunotoxicity, testicular and kidney cancer, liver damage, decreased fertility, and thyroid disease.
Children are even more susceptible than adults because they can absorb more PFAS from food, water and air in relation to their body weight. Children also put their hands in their mouths more often and their metabolic and immune systems 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 particularly important in the COVID-19 pandemic.
Regulation lags behind
PFAS have become so ubiquitous in the environment that health experts say it is likely impossible to completely prevent exposure. These substances are released throughout their life cycle, from chemical manufacture to use and disposal of the product. Up to 80% of the pollution from common PFAS such as PFOA comes from the manufacture of fluoropolymers, which use toxic PFAS as a processing aid to make products such as Teflon.
In 2009 the EPA set a health recommendation for PFOA in drinking water of 400 parts per trillion. Health warnings are not a mandatory requirement - they are technical guidelines for state, local, and tribal governments primarily responsible for regulating public water systems.
In 2016, the agency slashed this recommendation to 70 parts per trillion. Some states have set far higher levels of protection - just 8 parts per trillion.
According to a recent estimate by the Environmental Working Group, a public health organization, up to 110 million Americans could drink PFAS-contaminated water. Even with the most advanced treatments, it is extremely difficult and costly to remove these chemicals from drinking water. And it is impossible to clean lakes, river systems or oceans. Nevertheless, PFAS are largely unregulated by the federal government, although they are increasingly being observed by Congress.
Water treatment tanks
Reduce PFAS risks at the source
Given that PFAS pollution is so ubiquitous and difficult to get rid of, many health experts claim that the only way to fix 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 intervened. California recently banned PFAS from fighting fires. Maine and Washington have banned PFAS in food packaging. Other states are considering similar measures.
I am part of a group of scientists from universities, nonprofits, and government agencies in the US and Europe who have advocated managing 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 vital to the health and smooth functioning of society, such as: B. Medical devices and safety equipment. We recommended developing safer, non-PFAS alternatives.
As the EPA recognizes, there is an urgent need for innovative solutions to PFAS pollution. Based on good science, I believe we can effectively manage PFAS to reduce further damage while researchers find ways to eradicate what has already been published.
This article was republished by The Conversation, a non-profit news site dedicated to sharing ideas from academic experts.
The EPA's plan to regulate chemical contaminants in drinking water is a drop in the ocean
Will the New Toxic Chemical Safety Act protect us?
Carol Kwiatkowski has worked for two nonprofits that have received endowment funds: the Endocrine Disruption Exchange and the Green Science Policy Institute.
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