This article was originally published in Environmental Health News.
The scientific community has known for decades that a group of widespread chemicals cause damage to health across the globe, but effective policies aimed at curbing these effects lag far behind research, according to a new study.
The class of chemicals, known as PFAS (perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances), contains more than 5000 individual chemicals with similar properties. PFASs do not degrade easily once in the environment, so they can accumulate in animal and human tissues and be nicknamed “perpetual chemicals”.
The study, published Tuesday in the peer-reviewed journal Environmental Science & Technology, involved researchers from the United States, Sweden, Switzerland, Belgium, Norway, the Czech Republic and Denmark.
The researchers call for global changes in the way PFAS is manufactured and regulated, including:
- Scientific collaboration to better understand the extent of PFAS pollution and its health consequences around the world;
- Enhanced data sharing between PFAS manufacturing industries and researchers and politicians;
- Consistency in PFAS measurement techniques;
- Improved PFAS waste management strategies;
- Better communication strategies related to the health harms of PFAS;
- And clear policy guidelines in connection with the production and clean-up of PFAS.
“Knowledge deficits are often made to delay concrete action,” co-author Martin Scheringer, a researcher at the Institute of Biogeochemistry and Pollutant Dynamics in Zurich, said in a statement. “But we already know enough about the damage that these very persistent substances cause to take steps to stop all non-essential uses and limit exposure to older pollutants.”
Researchers’ proposals for future avenues include taking a systematic survey of all PFAS industries to identify current and past global emission sites; demands that retailers know and publicly share where PFAS is present in their supply chains; limiting future use of PFAS to only essential uses; demands that manufacturers of PFAS be financially responsible for their clean-up and regulation of the chemicals as a class rather than trying to tackle all 5,000 plus of them one by one.
One way forward proposed in this study is to connect all research tools to help us understand the consequences of our exposures.
In addition to being discovered in food and pickup packaging and boxes, PFAS is used in many kinds of nonstick and waterproof coatings. The chemicals have been detected in indoor air and at alarming levels in drinking water supplies throughout the United States and around the world. Exposure is associated with health effects including testicular and kidney cancer, decreased birth weight, thyroid disease, decreased sperm quality, high cholesterol, pregnancy-induced hypertension, asthma and ulcerative colitis.
“A striking feature of PFAS is how they can cause damage to so many systems in our bodies – our liver, our kidneys, our immunity, our metabolism,” says Linda Birnbaum, emeritus scientist and former director of the National Institute of Environmental Health. Sciences, which was not involved in the study, said in a statement. “One way forward proposed in this study is to connect all research tools – biomonitoring, epidemiology, animal experiments, in vitro studies, computer modeling, etc. – to help us understand the consequences of our exposures.”
Researchers also outline barriers to each of these proposed solutions and recommend ways to overcome them. For example, they note the difficulty of measuring low levels of specific PFAS in drinking water, but recommend that new methods be developed to measure the total PFAS content in drinking water and investigate how these more effective and cost-effective methods can be shared between countries and municipalities. to make them available.
The researchers also examined who should pay for the costs of PFAS contamination, noting that people who become ill as a result of pollution often bear the financial burden of these effects (along with local health systems), while local governments and water authorities often bears the cost of purifying water pollution. They note that the factories that manufacture these chemicals are often in low-income and color communities, which often have the highest health costs of PFAS exposure — a clear example of environmental injustice. Although PFAS is produced by a small number of companies, the pollution they produce has been distributed globally, so researchers are investigating several existing models to get polluters to cover the cost of environmental cleanup.
US PFAS rules
Since 2016, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has recommended a non-enforceable health advisory limit of 70 parts per day. Billion (ppt) for PFAS in drinking water — a level scientists, several states and other federal agencies have determined — is too high to adequately protect people’s health. The Agency has repeatedly promised to adopt stricter standards for PFAS in drinking water, but so far these rules have not come to fruition (although renewed efforts have been made to regulate the chemicals at the federal level).
Meanwhile, about 10 states have proposed or adopted limits for PFAS in drinking water, leaving a patchwork of protections. Some states, such as Pennsylvania, have spent years trying to regulate the chemical, but encounter many delays. Several other states have sued manufacturers of PFAS in an attempt to cover the cost of cleaning them up. Other nations have faced similar challenges when it comes to protecting humans from PFAS in drinking water – and drinking water is just one of many potential sources of widespread exposure to the chemicals.
“It is critical to prioritize our efforts not to be overwhelmed by the magnitude of the problem,” Carla Ng, a researcher at the University of Pittsburgh and lead author of the study, said in a statement. “This paper identifies where focus is needed to effectively minimize environmental and human exposure to PFAS.”