This article originally appeared on Environmental Health News.
The scientific community has known for decades that a group of widely used chemicals cause damage to health across the world, but effective policies to reduce these impacts are far behind research, according to a new study.
The class of chemicals, known as PFAS (Perfluoroalkyl and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances), includes over 5,000 individual chemicals with similar properties. PFAS do not break down easily once in the environment, so they can accumulate in animal and human tissues, earning them the nickname “eternal 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. .
Researchers are calling for global changes in the way PFAS are made and regulated, including:
- Scientific collaboration to better understand the extent of PFAS contamination and its impacts on health in the world;
- Strengthening of data sharing between industries manufacturing PFAS, scientists and decision makers;
- Consistency of PFAS measurement techniques;
- Improvement of PFAS waste management strategies;
- Better communication strategies related to the health harms of PFAS;
- And clear policy guidelines for the manufacture and cleaning of PFAS.
“Knowledge gaps are often put forward to delay concrete action,” said co-author Martin Scheringer, researcher at the Institute of Biogeochemistry and Pollutant Dynamics in Zurich, in a statement. “But we already know enough about the damage caused by these very persistent substances to take action to stop all non-essential uses and limit exposure to inherited contamination.”
The researchers’ suggestions for new avenues to follow include carrying out a systematic inventory of all PFAS industries to identify current and historical sites of global emissions; require retailers to know and publicly share where PFASs are present in their supply chains; limit future use of PFAS to essential uses only; require PFAS manufacturers to be financially responsible for their cleaning; and regulate chemicals as a class rather than trying to tackle the more than 5,000 of them one by one.
One way forward proposed in this study is to link all the research tools to help us understand the consequences of our exposures.
In addition to being detected in food and take-out packaging and boxes, PFAS are used in many types of non-stick and waterproof coatings. The chemicals have been detected in indoor air and at worrying levels in the drinking water supply in the United States and around the world. Exposure is linked to health effects including testicular and kidney cancer, decreased birth weight, thyroid disease, decreased sperm quality, high cholesterol, l hypertension induced by pregnancy, asthma and ulcerative colitis.
“A striking feature of PFAS is how they can harm so many systems in our body – our livers, our kidneys, our immunity, our metabolism,” Linda Birnbaum, Scientist Emeritus and Former Director of the National Institute of Science in Environmental Health, which was not involved in the study, said in a statement. “One way forward proposed in this study is to link all research tools – biomonitoring, epidemiology, animal studies, in vitro studies, computer modeling, etc. – to help us understand the consequences of our exposures.”
The researchers also describe the 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 the development of new methods to measure the total content of PFAS in drinking water and explore ways to share these methods more efficient and cost effective between countries and municipalities. to make them accessible.
The researchers also investigated who should pay the cost of PFAS contamination, noting that people who become ill as a result of contamination often bear the financial burden of these impacts (as well as local health systems), while that local governments and water authorities often bear the cost of cleaning up water contamination. They note that factories making these chemicals are often found in low-income communities and communities of color, which often have the highest health costs from exposure to PFAS – a clear example of environmental injustice. Although PFAS are produced by a small number of companies, the pollution they produce has been distributed globally. Researchers are therefore exploring several existing models to force polluters to cover the cost of environmental clean-up.
US PFAS regulations
Since 2016, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has recommended a non-binding health advisory limit of 70 parts per trillion (ppt) for PFAS in drinking water – a level that scientists, many States and other federal agencies have determined is too high to adequately protect human health. The agency has repeatedly promised to adopt stricter standards for PFAS in drinking water, but so far these regulations have not materialized (although new efforts to regulate chemicals at the level are in progress).
In the meantime, a dozen states have proposed or adopted limits on PFAS in drinking water, leaving a patchwork of protections. Some states, like Pennsylvania, have spent years trying to regulate the chemical, but have faced numerous delays. Several other states have sued PFAS manufacturers in an attempt to cover the costs of their clean-up. Other countries have faced similar challenges when it comes to protecting people from PFAS in drinking water – and drinking water is just one of many potential sources of widespread exposure to chemical products.
“It is essential to prioritize our efforts so that we are not overwhelmed by the scale of the problem,” Carla Ng, a University of Pittsburgh researcher and lead author of the study, said in a statement. “This document identifies where to focus to effectively minimize environmental and human exposure to PFAS.”