Opinion

Lasting Health Impacts of PFAS Will Rival Our Past Public-Health Failures

Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), a toxic alphabet soup of manufactured chemicals linked to cancer, will one day, perhaps soon, join the long list of profitable poisons that were allowed to sicken us and damage the environment long after their dangers were first discovered.

There is growing evidence that exposure to PFAS can lead to bad health. The use of dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT), asbestos, and lead in paint and gasoline continued long after the risks to public health and wildlife were determined. Greed and special interests also protected the tobacco industry long after the dangers of its products and their secondhand smoke were documented by science.

The same societal sins seem to be at play protecting the chemical industry’s omnipresent PFAS. Opponents of the oversaturated use of PFAS claim manufacturers such as 3M and DuPont have spent decades studying and covering up evidence — the same strategy employed by the tobacco industry — of the negative human and environmental impacts of their chemicals. (In 2015, The Intercept published a three-part series by Sharon Lerner about DuPont’s “multi-decade cover-up of the severe harms” and the news organization has since continued to cover the dangers of PFAS in depth.)

PFAS, manufactured and used in a variety of industries worldwide since the 1940s, are used or have been used to protect carpets from spills, to make cookware nonstick, and to formulate firefighting foams. They are in polishes, waxes, paints, and cleaning products. They coat pizza boxes and microwave popcorn bags. They waterproof jackets. They are in use throughout our economy. They don’t break down and can accumulate over time.

They have been associated with kidney and testicular cancer, impaired liver function, chronic intestinal inflammation, and elevated blood pressure during pregnancy.

But chemical and plastics lobbyists, led by the over-influential American Chemistry Council, and the corporations that manufacture these toxic chemicals loudly oppose any regulations to curb their use.

Last year New Hampshire passed the strictest PFAS standards in the country and was quickly sued by industry behemoth 3M, even as evidence grows about the dangers of these substances. (Two bills in the coronavirus-stalled Rhode Island General Assembly would take more immediate action on PFAS. House and Senate versions of the same bill would require municipal water systems to treat their drinking water or offer an alternative source if levels exceed 20 parts per trillion. Another bill would ban the use of PFAS in food packaging.)

A peer-reviewed study published in March by scientists at the Environmental Working Group (EWG) and Indiana University found that 26 different PFAS compounds all displayed at least one characteristic of known human carcinogens.

In a white paper published in late June, a group of U.S. and international scientists emphasized that the current approach to regulating and managing the harm of PFAS has failed to protect public health. The paper recommended a new approach that classifies all PFAS as “concerning,” and called for an end to all non-essential use.

Researchers at the University of Rhode Island’s Sources, Transport, Exposure & Effects of PFAS have linked these chemicals to thyroid disease, low birth weight, cancer, and cardiovascular disease.

PFAS are a group of fluorinated chemicals, which includes PFOA, PFOS, GenX, and a slew of other compound acronyms, that have been accumulating in our bodies for decades. They are extremely persistent and number in the thousands.

These toxic chemicals can be found in our food, our drinking water, and in our body tissue and in the tissues of other organisms. They are in the soil, in rainwater, and in emissions spewed into the air.

“The regulation of toxic PFAS chemicals using a one-chemical-at-a-time approach has completely failed to protect public health,” said David Andrews, co-author of the June 30 paper and a senior scientist at EWG. “Decades after knowing about the harms caused by PFAS such as DuPont’s Teflon and 3M’s Scotchgard, our government has not set laws banning use, establishing drinking water limits or even classifying these chemicals as hazardous substances and requiring cleanup.”

Scientists issued similar warnings about DDT, asbestos, and lead. Those in power ignored the dangers while cancer clusters grew and wildlife died. Then, as now, profit over people. Big Business over environmental protection. Greed isn’t good.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently finalized a rule regulating PFAS in consumer products that significantly weakens a public-health protection proposed under the Obama administration, according to EWG. The final rule only requires notification from importers and approval from the agency when PFAS is used as a surface coating in a product, as it was in Teflon.

The extent of PFAS contamination is extensive. EWG has mapped 1,582 contamination sites in 49 states (southern New England is covered in blue dots). In tests commissioned by EWG of the drinking water in major U.S. cities, including Boston, 43 of 44 water systems had detectable PFAS and, on average, six different PFAS were found in drinking water. Government tests of public water systems similarly found a complex mixture of four to 12 PFAS in every drinking water sample, at a combined average concentration of nearly 20 parts per trillion.

In 2019, the Rhode Island Department of Health tested every major drinking-water supply in the state and the water in every school that had its own well. The results showed that PFAS are in a significant portion of the state’s drinking water and that more than 40 percent of the schools tested had levels above the recommended standard of 20 parts per trillion.

PFAS contamination has been detected at more than 300 military installations, but the Department of Defense has been slow to clean up this pollution or reduce ongoing exposure.

Most people have been exposed to PFAS, and there is plenty of evidence that exposure to these chemicals is disagreeable to life. Studies have found that PFOA and PFOS, the most extensively produced and studied of these chemicals, can cause reproductive and developmental problems, liver and kidney impairment, and immunological effects in laboratory animals. Both have caused tumors in animals.

In humans, the most consistent findings are increased cholesterol levels, with more limited findings related to low infant birth weights, effects on the immune system, cancer, and thyroid hormone disruption, according to the EPA, the same federal agency that recently weakened already-insufficient PFAS public-health protections.

Though regulators have been long aware of PFAS dangers, EPA’s plan, even before its recent ruling, to address the problem falls well short of what is needed to protect public health, according to many scientists, researchers, and environmental organizations.

Although PFOA and PFOS are no longer manufactured in the United States, they are still produced internationally and can be imported in consumer goods such as carpet, leather and apparel, rubber, and plastics. EPA’s new Trump administration-backed rule doesn’t take that fact seriously.

It’s well past time we take the PFAS threat seriously. Our history is crammed with pain, suffering, and death because we failed, often due to to greed and sloth, to take past public-health warnings seriously.

Frank Carini is the ecoRI News editor.

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