Joint blog with Dr. Katie Pelch and Dr. Carol Kwiatkowski
Deny. Distract. Delay.
These are well known tactics of the chemical industry, including the producers of PFAS. For example, 3M denies there is a causal connection between any health outcomes and PFAS, even well known bad actors like PFOA. And industry scientists try to delay action by urging evaluation of PFAS individually, instead of as one class (as called for by leading scientists in the field). But we don’t need to get trapped in industry’s games, science shows us it is beyond time to act to protect public health.
Ever since it became clear that two legacy PFAS, PFOA and PFOS, posed serious health risks to people, the message from chemical manufacturers is that their replacements are safe. Although still PFAS, they are purported to be less persistent and less toxic. Many people have been concerned, however, that one toxic chemical has been exchanged for another. This common phenomena is known as ‘regrettable substitution’ and typically, very little research exists on the substituted chemical, which leads to substantial delays in action.
Two years ago, a group of scientists from NRDC and The Endocrine Disruption Exchange began to wonder, “how much do we know about the health effects of PFAS beyond PFOA and PFOS?” Thus began the PFAS-Tox Database project—the building of an interactive database of all the publicly available health and toxicology studies published through May 2019, organized into 15 health outcome categories.
What we found was quite a surprise.
Contrary to the notion that ‘there’s very little research on replacement PFAS’, the PFAS-Tox Database identified 742 studies on 29 select PFAS that have been measured in the environment or in people. The winner—with 434 studies—was PFNA which has been detected in the blood of over 90% of people living in the US. In fact, two thirds of the PFAS had over 30 studies each. And stay tuned, because we found up to 400 more studies that have been published since our initial search in 2019 and we are already hard at work adding them to the database.
One thing the database makes immediately clear is that dozens of studies, in humans, animals and in vitro, have been conducted on many purportedly ‘safer’ PFAS. Further, a wide range of health effects have been studied—in the immune, digestive, metabolic, endocrine, and nervous systems, and during reproduction and development. Many of the findings reflect health effects already linked to PFOA and PFOS, yet few PFAS in the database have received regulatory attention.
The purpose of this database is to support governments, businesses, academics, and impacted citizens in quickly assessing the state of the science so they can make timely decisions that protect public health and the environment. The database also pushes back on industry’s deny, delay, and distract tactics by organizing the hundreds of peer reviewed studies that have been conducted on PFAS beyond PFOA and PFOS, thereby making it harder to deny health impacts and delay health protective actions by continuing to call for more research.
It took dozens of years for epidemiologists, toxicologists, and other scientists to conduct these health studies (thank you!), which were mostly funded by taxpayer dollars (thank you too!). It took another two years for our team to gather and organize the data on just 29 of the thousands of PFAS that have been identified to date. And given that few funding mechanisms exist for conducting this sort of work, the scientists working on this project often donated their time on top of other commitments, and several were volunteers.
It will take many more years for the government to evaluate each PFAS individually and make decisions about managing exposure. Meanwhile PFAS manufacturers continue to make and use new PFAS with very little oversight.
We can’t depend on this excruciatingly slow, resource intensive process for identifying and addressing harmful chemicals to protect public health.
Health protections should be delayed no longer based on the mistaken idea that there is not yet enough data to support action. The great potential for harm associated with PFAS calls for urgent and comprehensive action. This is one reason why experts in the field are urging the management of all PFAS as a single class of chemicals. Class-based management of PFAS is a more efficient and health protective approach and is already being adopted by governments and businesses (see here, here, and here), but there is still so much to do.
The PFAS-Tox Database can help by supporting government decision makers evaluating PFAS, product manufacturers and retailers wanting to remove harmful PFAS from their product lines, and NGOs and their constituents concerned about the potential for harm. Check it out today and see for yourself what the data have to say.
Related Blog Posts
In 2020, 16 experts on PFAS, including myself, published an article providing a scientific explanation for why a class-based approach to the over 9,000 separate but related PFAS chemicals is appropriate and necessary. Industry scientists have recently published a comment disagreeing with our findings. Here we present our rebuttal that covers how industry scientists have misinterpreted the science and why we disagree with their suggestion that every PFAS needs to be extensively evaluated before action to protect public health and the environment can be taken.
Managing the risk of these “forever chemicals” has focused primarily on one chemical—out of thousands—at a time. It doesn’t work, so we must change this system to protect public health.