Exposed: Companies hid health dangers of PFAS forever chemicals for decades

Unfortunately, PFAS can be found in ordinary objects like waterproof raincoats. Credit: Oona Tempest, Kaiser Health News

By Kaitlyn Scanlon, Alliance Intern from Oregon State University

PFAS – ever heard of them? If you haven’t, it’s probably because evidence of these chemicals’ highly toxic nature has been swept under the table by big companies since the 1970s, as told by CBC. PFAS stands for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, aka the “forever chemicals” belonging to “a class of more than 9000 human-made chemicals.” Animal testing in recent years has illuminated how “PFAS have been linked to liver problems, pregnancy issues, immune problems and some cancers.” 

A study authored by UCSF Professor Tracey Woodruff examined 39 internal industry documents dating from 1961 to 2006 that related to DuPont and 3M, two major PFAS manufacturers. The study asserts that “the companies had evidence by the 1970s — decades before public health and government authorities turned their attention to the chemicals — that some PFAS were toxic to humans, based on lab reports and health impacts on employees, but downplayed those impacts in public messaging or obscured what they had found.” 

PFAS were deemed to be “inert and not something that would cause health problems” within the public health world until around 2000, according to the study. They became commonplace in household objects like non-stick cookware, cosmetics, waterproof clothing and raincoats due to their “unique properties that make them heat-resistant, oil- and water-repellent and friction-resistant,” as reported by CBC.

However, those persistent properties are exactly what give PFAS the name of forever chemicals: they break down so slowly over time that they might as well last forever. The result is that PFAS is found in the blood of at least 97% of Americans.

The EPA is set to finalize new rules on PFAS, according to the CBC. A few US states have independently limited PFAS use out of concern for the quality of their water supplies. The Canadian government is considering regulating all PFAS to address the significant potential health risks associated with PFAS. This is a more time-effective move than studying each of the hundreds of PFAS chemicals individually.

The difficulty with effectively regulating these persistent chemicals is found in their constant evolution: “PFOA was replaced with another PFAS chemical called GenX, which has also been linked to liver-related health issues,” as told by CBC.

The horrible and continually growing challenge with forever chemicals should never have been allowed to happen. Companies must be required to fully divulge all scientific evidence and be held liable for any non-disclosure. Our ongoing challenge then becomes keeping questionable chemicals out of the market unless we’re certain of their safety. After all, with the links to serious potential impacts on human health, our lives may depend on it.

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