An editorial published in Environmental Health July 31 suggests that research on perfluorinated alkylate substances (PFAS) and their dangerous health effects was not revealed until several decades after it was conducted.
The lack of publicly available research has prevented proper guidelines for levels of the chemical compounds, including in drinking water, Philippe Grandjean, a professor at University of Southern Denmark and Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health, argued in his piece.
In the editorial, Grandjean said studies conducted up to four decades ago found health effects, including on the immune system, from PFAS chemicals, but those studies were hidden by production companies, like 3M Co.
“It’s frustrating to be an environmental health researcher and spend years and years to characterize the exposures and the adverse health effects of these compounds, only to discover that most of that information was already known but had been kept secret,” Grandjean told EHN.
PFASs are industrial chemicals known for repelling water and fat. They are often used in stain or water resistant sprays, teflon and in microwave popcorn bags, among other household items.
“It’s very challenging to avoid PFASs in consumer products,” Laurel Schaider, a research scientists at Silent Spring Institute, told EHN.
They were also used in fire fighting foams, which is why areas near military sites across the US have been found contaminated.
Their chemical compounds, defined by the length of their carbon chains, have made them toxic to both humans and the environment. The chemicals have been linked to multiple human health problems, including testicular and kidney cancers, decreased birth weights, thyroid disease, decreased sperm quality, high cholesterol, pregnancy-induced hypertension, asthma and ulcerative colitis.
Most research has been done on two PFASs, Perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and Perfluorooctane sulfonic acid (PFOS), Schaider said, however, there are new perfluorinated compounds that are raising alarm among scientists as well.
The editorial comes as communities across the US continually uncover dangerous amounts of the chemicals in water supplies. Recently, Michigan declared a state of emergency over the levels of PFAS chemicals found in the town of Parchment’s water, and state health officials warn the compounds could be affecting up to 11,000 sites statewide.
Michigan isn’t alone: In May, an analysis released by the Environmental Working Group reported that more than 1,500 drinking water systems, serving up to 110 million Americans, may be contaminated with PFAS compounds.
The compounds have also been the subject of multiple lawsuits against chemical manufacturers Dupont and 3M, the most recent of which was settled in Minnesota. 3M ultimately settled with the state of Minnesota for $850 million, and during the lawsuit, many of 3M’s documents were released, including unreleased studies showing some of the health effects of the chemicals.
According to Grandjean’s editorial, health effects from PFASs have been known since 1978 when two internal reports from the International Research and Development Corporation prepared for 3M about monkey studies were released. One of the studies was halted due to monkey mortality from doses of PFOS, according to the editorial.
The studies were eventually released to the EPA, which used them in further studies and reports on PFAS.
The chemicals had also been found in production workers’ blood in 1976, and PFAS have been found to transfer to babies as far back as 1981. But despite knowing that PFAS were found in umbilical cord blood in 1981, the information was not released until 20 years later, according to the editorial.
Grandjean had published a study in 2012 detailing how higher PFAS exposure was linked to vaccinated children developing lower amounts of antibodies, a finding at the time he considered a “major discovery.”
But the 1978 monkey study had shown that the immune system was affected by PFOA. The study was not published nor was there a follow-up. And without the published research, the compounds were spread into the environment without scrutiny, Grandjean said.
“Had I found out in 1978 that this industrial chemical was toxic to the immune system, I could see all sorts of examinations of exposed kids that could be done, but I was not told, so it had to wait, this case 30 years, before I turned my attention to this,” he said.
But it goes beyond not releasing information. As part of the Minnesota lawsuit against 3M, a Science Publication Strategy from 1998 was released, which details how the company planned to release selected studies on PFASs and use their narrative to make it clear the substances were not harmful.
The strategy included releasing a study on pregnant mice that showed no birth defects on the babies. But another document listed in the strategy reported that PFOS, when given to pregnant mice, reduced pup survival and the mouse’s average weight gain during the pregnancy.
In another case, a draft study of PFOS and PFOA found a link between PFOA, cholesterol and triglycerides, which was not published in the final study.
3M settled in February 2018 with Minnesota for $850 million. It also had settled for a lesser amount in 2007, which started one of the first clean up efforts, Walker Smith, spokesperson for the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, told EHN.
With the first settlement in 2007, the state was able to start some cleanup efforts, including removing contamination from soil, providing bottle water for people who get their water from wells and getting filters for some of the wells, Smith said.
“Up to this point, it’s been a kind of Band-Aid approach,” he said.
With the new settlement, the state has created working groups to decide what projects the money should fund, he said.
But Minnesota is not the only place where lawsuits have occurred against PFAS production companies. Robert Bilott, a lawyer working for Taft, Stettinius and Hollister LLP, has made a name for himself going after these companies.
Bilotts’s first case was against DuPont, which settled. And over the past 20 years, he tried to forward studies and data to the EPA, he told EHN.
Bilott then filed a class action lawsuit against DuPont, which, he said, allowed scientists to start weighing in on the PFASs found in the drinking water in West Virginia, which ultimately led to the massive study a decade ago of nearly 70,000 community members in the Ohio River Valley—dubbed the C8 Science Panel. The panel became a model for studying current contamination and health impacts from highly fluorinated chemicals.
Once the science came back, individuals who had one of the six diseases linked to PFASs were able to sue DuPont.
Prior to the lawsuits, people had not known that there were PFASs in their drinking water, Bilott said.
“These were things that could have been avoided if handled properly by the companies,” he said.
A spokesperson for 3M did not return a request for comment as of publication.
The Old and New PFASs
Most companies have stopped producing PFOA and PFOS, but there is nothing banning their production, Schaider said. And they still persist in the environment.
PFOA and PFOS have long carbon chains, which mean they take longer to break down. Some of the new PFASs being produced have shorter carbon chains, meaning their half-lives are closer to months, she said.
“And while they don’t stick around in our bodies as long, they pose some other challenges. They are harder to remove with the same water treatments people use to remove PFOS and PFOA from drinking water,” she said.
They also have accumulative effects on the environment, she added.
The other problem with the newer chemicals is the lack of research on the newer compounds. Just like with PFOA and PFOS, these compounds are being used without a full assessment to any possible harm they might bring, Grandjean said.
Regulations and Going Forth
What Grandjean, Billot and Schaider want is more regulation on PFASs.
There is no current federal standard for the amount of PFASs that can be in drinking water, Schaider said.
In his editorial, Grandjean calls for more research before widespread usage of PFASs. But there are other “easy” fixes Congress could do to have more regulation over the compounds, such as determining PFOA and PFOS as hazardous so the military can be involved in the clean up, Grandjean said.
“It’s a fairly simple thing, and when I say we’re 20 years behind in research and rediscovering what was known by the private sector much earlier, we’re also way behind in regard to the decisions in society, the regulatory agencies,” he said.
“This is really in my mind low hanging fruit. The airport should use fluorine-free fire-fighting foams and we should simply measure PFASs in drinking water across the country.”