[Op-ed] PFAS ‘forever chemicals’ are widespread and threaten human health – here’s a strategy for protecting the public
By Carol Kwiatkowski | The Conversation US | October 9, 2020
Read the full article by Carol Kwiatkowski (The Conversation US)
“Like many inventions, the discovery of Teflon happened by accident. In 1938, chemists from Dupont (now Chemours) were studying refrigerant gases when, much to their surprise, one concoction solidified. Upon investigation, they found it was not only the slipperiest substance they’d ever seen – it was also noncorrosive and extremely stable and had a high melting point.
In 1954 the revolutionary ‘nonstick’ Teflon pan was introduced. Since then, an entire class of human-made chemicals has evolved: per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, better known as PFAS. There are upward of 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, firefighting foams, medical devices and numerous other products.
But over time, evidence has slowly built that some commonly used PFAS are toxicand may cause cancer. It took 50 years to understand that the happy accident of Teflon’s discovery was, in fact, a train wreck.
As a public health analyst, I have studied the harm caused by these chemicals. I am one of hundreds of scientists who are calling for a comprehensive, effective plan to manage the entire class of PFAS to protect public health while safer alternatives are developed.
Typically, when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency assesses chemicals for potential harm, it examines one substance at a time. That approach isn’t working for PFAS, given the sheer number of them and the fact that manufacturers commonly replace toxic substances with ‘regrettable substitutes‘ – similar, lesser-known chemicals that also threaten human health and the environment.
A class-action lawsuit brought this issue to national attention in 2005. Workers at a Parkersburg, West Virginia, DuPont plant 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 had known as far back as 1961 that PFOA could harm the liver.
The suit was ultimately settled in 2017 for US$670 million, after an eight-year studyof tens of thousands of people who had been exposed. Based on multiple scientific studies, this review concluded that there was a probable link between exposure to PFOA and six categories of diseases: diagnosed high cholesterol, ulcerative colitis, thyroid disease, testicular cancer, kidney cancer and pregnancy-induced hypertension.
Over the past two decades, hundreds of peer-reviewed scientific papers have shown that many PFAS are not only toxic – they also don’t fully break down in the environment and have accumulated in the bodies of people 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…”