Recent studies have shown that Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances are linked to serious adverse health effects, particularly various cancers. This is of serious concern, especially to public health, because of how prevalent PFAS are in both manufactured products and the environment.
What Are PFAS?
Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are man-made chemicals found in everyday products such as food packaging, commercial household products, drinking water, and living organisms. They are not naturally occurring. Starting in the 1940s, they were initially used in stain and water-resistant fabrics, carpeting, paints, cleaning products, and fire-fighting foams. One of the most famous PFAS-based brands is Teflon, first developed in the late 1930s.
The most commonly known PFAS are Perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) and Perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA). PFOS chemicals have a higher molecular weight, boiling point than PFOAs. The manufacturing of PFOS and PFOAs have been voluntarily phased out. However, they continue to be found throughout the environment. Other PFAS examples include GenX and Perfluorobutanesulfonic acid (PFBS). GenX is PFOA-alternative used in the production of high performing fluoropolymers. PFBS is an alternative to PFOS. Both these chemicals are still found in groundwater, surface water, and drinking water.
How can I get exposed to PFAS?
- Packaged in PFAS-containing material (e.g, pizza boxes)
- Processed with PFAS-using equipment
- Grown in soil or water contaminated with PFAS
- Commercial household products
- Water and stain-repellent fabrics
- Nonstick products (e.g., Teflon)
- Cleaning Products
- Industries or facilities that use PFAS material including:
- Electronics manufacturing services
- Chrome plating
- Oil recovery
- Military facilities
- Drinking water
- Water near facilities such as a wastewater treatment plant, a landfill, a factory may contain significant levels of PFAS.
- Living organisms
- PFAS accumulate within fish, humans, and other animals over time. They may ingest PFAS-contaminated food and drinks. PFAS can stay in the body and accumulate over time. PFAS levels may increase to a point where they may sustain adverse health effects.
PFA health effects
Over time, individuals may sustain adverse health effects as a result of increased PFAS levels in their bodies. The EPA reports that many PFAS-related studies indicate that exposure increases cholesterol levels. They may also cause:
- Low infant birth weights
- Immune system effects
- PFAS have been linked to cancer
- Disrupt thyroid hormones
March 2020 study linking PFAS to cancer
A March 2020 study published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health links PFAS to cancer. Researchers concluded that several PFAS show several attributes of carcinogens. They also found that all chemicals examined showed at least one characteristic, especially receptor-mediated effects. PFAS are prevalent and this study shows how dangerous they are to the overall public.
March 2013 study linking PFOAs to cancer
A March 2013 study published in Environmental Health Perspectives concluded that high levels of PFOA exposure might be associated with cancers of the testicle, ovarian, prostate, and kidney. They are also associated with Non-Hodgkin lymphoma. The researchers analyzed 18 cases of cancer within nine years throughout several counties in Ohio and West Virginia that were near a DuPont-owned plant in Parkersburg, WV, which manufactured Teflon. By showing PFAS’ links to cancer, it further reinforces the fact that this is a public health issue.
What is lymphoma? What is its significance to PFAS?
Lymphomas are forms of cancer affecting the lymph system, which comprises of tissues and organs that produce and carry white blood cells. There are two types of lymphoma:
- Hodgkin’s lymphoma, where Reed-Sternberg cells develop
- Non-Hodgkin lymphoma, where Reed-Sternberg cells do not develop
Both these forms occur in people of all ages. However, Non-Hodgkin lymphoma is more common as you get older. By contrast, Hodgkin lymphoma is more prevalent among individuals under 40 and over 75. Men are also more likely to develop lymphoma than women.
Lymphoma symptoms include
- Swollen lymph nodes
- Night sweats
- Weight loss
- Shortness of breath
Lymphoma may be difficult to properly diagnose because it does not have symptoms distinct from other conditions. It can vary between a mild fever or even nothing noticeable. Signs and symptoms are usually mild, which can make it easy to miss it early on. If you suspect any signs, please visit your doctor as soon as possible.
Exposure in firefighters
Firefighters are especially at risk for PFAS-related adverse health effects. Both civilian and military firefighters use aqueous film-forming foam (AFFF) to extinguish jet fuel fires. Despite being highly effective, they are extremely toxic.
Firefighters are exposed to PFAS from the following:
- PFAS-containing products that combust such as
- Stain-resistant carpet
- Upholstery fixed to furniture
- Materials found in burning buildings
- Their equipment
A 2018 International Pollutants Elimination Network (IPEN) study found that Australian firefighters had high PFAS levels in their blood. This indicates that firefighters’ use of AFFF makes them high-risk for adverse health effects from PFAS than the overall public.
Exposure in military facilities
Military firefighters have used AFFF on hundreds of military bases to extinguish pool fires. AFFF runoff may enter streams and contaminate waterways. They can also contaminate the soil through groundwater. What this means is that both military personnel and their families face significant PFAS exposure as a result.
Department of Defense Study
The Department of Defense reported that over 400 installations within the United States contain at least one area where PFOS/PFOAs are either known or suspected to have been found in groundwater. They have also found that 36 sites contained contaminated drinking water. This report shows that military personnel and their families are at an increased risk of PFAS-exposure than the overall public.
PFOA Stewardship Program
Some PFAS are no longer made in the United States. In 2002, the main American PFOS-manufacturer voluntarily phased out its production. In January 2006, the EPA invited eight major PFAS-manufacturers to a program to phase out PFOA. The program’s goals were the following:
- A commitment to a 95 percent reduction in the emissions of PFOA, chemicals that are broken down to PFOA, other related chemicals, and the chemical’s product content levels by 2010.
- A commitment to eliminating the emission and production of these chemicals by 2015.
These following companies participated in this program
- BASF Corporation
- Solvay Solexis
According to EPA progress reports, these companies have met the PFOA Stewardship Program’s goals. However, despite these developments, PFAS remain prevalent throughout the environment.
Despite developments to reduce the manufacturing of PFAS, more needs to be done to reduce PFAS-exposure. This may include further expansion of eliminating the production and emission of GenX and PFBS. The high PFAS level among fire departments and military facilities must be addressed. PFAS are hard to avoid because of how easy it is for them to contaminate soil and drinking water. This makes this a difficult public health issue to address.