The True Cost of PFAS and the Benefits of Acting Now
By Alissa Cordner, Gretta Goldenman, Linda S Birnbaum, Phil Brown, Mark F Miller, Rosie Mueller, Sharyle Patton, Derrick H Salvatore, Leonardo Trasande
Environmental Science & Technology
July 12, 2021
Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are a class of over 9000 persistent hazardous chemicals used in industrial processes and consumer goods. They are ubiquitous in the environment and in people, who are exposed to PFAS via contaminated food and water, consumer products, and workplaces.(1) Exposure to several PFAS has been linked to a plethora of health effects in both animal and human studies, even at background levels. They are so environmentally persistent that they have been termed “forever chemicals.”
While in many ways PFAS contamination problems reflect broader issues with the chemicals regulatory system in the United States, a key feature of this industry is that only a handful of companies have produced the basic chemical building blocks for PFAS chemicals. These companies have known about the potential toxicity, human exposure, and extreme persistence of PFAS since the 1970s, yet have continued and expanded production.(2)
In the 2000s, in response to mounting pressure from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) about risks to human and environmental health, PFAS manufacturers agreed to phase out U.S. production of perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), perfluorooctanesulfonate (PFOS), and some related PFAS. Replacement PFAS, including new chemicals developed by industry, are widely used in more than 200 use categories,(3) despite growing concerns about exposures, persistence, and toxicity.(4)
The PFAS industry claims that the chemicals’ use in consumer goods and industrial applications brings wide benefits, valuing the U.S. fluoropolymer segment at $2 billion a year.(5) However, it fails to mention the costs of exposure, which are long-term, wide-ranging, routinely externalized onto the public, and disproportionately experienced. Focusing on a narrow, short-term view of PFAS benefits ignores how costs are displaced to communities and governments, despite existence of safer alternatives in most product sectors.
This review of the true costs of PFAS highlights the need to act now to ensure that exposures are capped at current levels by reducing the production and use of PFAS. It calls attention to systematic failures of U.S. chemical regulation, including inadequate premarket review of new compounds, data gaps that prevent and delay the regulation of existing chemicals, and the widespread externalization of social costs of pollution onto the public.
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