The Great Forever Chemical Cover-up: Most studies that link PFAS to serious health problems ‘are flying under the radar’, scientists warn – amid growing evidence manufacturers suppressed true dangers of toxins

A small portion of the most compelling evidence pointing to the harms of forever chemicals, including birth defects and an increased risk of cancer, is getting the public attention it deserves.

Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, have been lurking in drinking water and the air we breathe for decades. A product of large-scale manufacturing and industry, the substances will last at least that long because of the glacial rate at which they break down in the environment.

The so-called “forever chemicals” remain in the bloodstream and organs for years at a time before exiting the body through urination, and because the chemicals are ever-present in everyday life, from lining on nonstick cookware to pesticide runoff into the water supply, the body is continuously bombarded with them.

A survey earlier this month revealed much higher than average rates of cancer and death, as well as pregnancy complications, in most counties whose drinking water contains high levels of PFAS chemicals.

But researchers at the Green Science Policy Institute found that of the most substantial scientific explorations of health outcomes of people who steadily inhale or drink concentrations of PFAS chemicals, only eight percent come up with a press alert to get much-needed media attention.

Tap water contaminated with forever chemicals is a widespread problem, with about 45 percent of U.S. drinking water sources testing positive for at least one. Elevated PFAS rates have been linked to higher rates of cancer and other health problems

The cities depicted on the map are just a handful of the many cities that have been found to have higher concentrations of PFAS in public water supplies and private wells

The cities depicted on the map are just a handful of the many cities that have been found to have higher concentrations of PFAS in public water supplies and private wells

The institute’s findings come just over a month after it was revealed that executives at DuPont and 3M, two of the largest PFAS manufacturers in the U.S., were first warned of health risks in 1961 but didn’t sound the alarm until the 1990s.

Rebecca Fuoco, the director of science communication at the Green Science Policy Institute said: ‘New studies finding strong links between forever chemicals and serious harms such as preterm birth and cancer are flying under the radar.

‘Research tucked away in scientific journals has a limited reach, and therefore impact.’

The authors of the statement said that researchers may be wary of “non-scientific communication,” such as exchanges with the media.

Authors also said researchers may be hesitant to add to the growing body of evidence pointing to the many downsides of PFAS exposure for fear that their study is “inaccurate or over-hyped,” but when that happens, it’s usually because the accompanying press release was poorly written or misinterpreted the findings.

Evidence pointing to the myriad dangers associated with long-term exposure to PFAS has steadily accumulated over the past decade.

When PFAS enter the body, they settle in the bloodstream, kidneys and liver.

A 2007 estimate from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention puts the total proportion of Americans with PFAS in their blood at a whopping 98 percent.

However, too few scientific studies detailing these dangers received the media attention researchers say is necessary to persuade authorities and responsible parties, such as pesticide manufacturers, to address the problem.

Typically, when research institutions such as major academic institutions arrive at substantial scientific conclusions that will be widely disseminated public health implications, they issue press releases to get media attention to publicize it.

And the press alerts largely get the job done – studies that came with press releases received 20 times more attention than those that didn’t, meaning a lot of useful public health information went unrecognized.

Dr. Linda Birnbaum, former head of the National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences and co-author of the Green Policy Institute statement, said: “I urge scientists and their institutions to embrace media outreach as a critical part of the research process.

‘As scientists, we hold the key to information that can lead to better policy, medical practice, industrial innovation and more. It is our responsibility to unlock that potential by sharing our research with a wide audience.’

In the absence of federal rules limiting the levels of perpetual chemicals in drinking water, nearly half of all drinking water sources in the US have been shown to contain at least one type of PFAS.

This is increasingly evident in places like Brunswick County, North Carolina, where tap water contains some of the highest concentrations of PFAS in the entire country, largely due to pollution from a nearby DuPont chemical plant.

A study found that tap water in Brunswick County contains 155 times the amount of PFOA considered safe (1.09 parts per trillion). The state average, for reference, is 0.945ppt.

Experts point the finger at a Fayetteville chemical plant they say has been dumping toxic chemicals into the Cape Fear River basin, which serves as the primary drinking water supply for more than 1.5 million North Carolina residents, since the 1980s.

Cancer diagnoses in most cities identified by the Environmental Working Group as having high levels of PFAS in water are above the national average of about 439 cases per 100,000 people

Cancer diagnoses in most cities identified by the Environmental Working Group as having high levels of PFAS in water are above the national average of about 439 cases per 100,000 people

PFAS are ubiquitous in modern life. Some of the estimated 12,000 PFAS chemicals are used to give nonstick cookware its signature quality, repel water from raincoats and form the firefighting foam used by firefighters.

Neighborhoods with the highest PFAS levels in drinking water

Concentrations are measured in parts per trillion (PPT)

  1. Brunswick County, NC at 185.9 ppt
  2. Quad Cities, Iowa at 109.8ppt
  3. Miami, Fla. at 56.7ppt
  4. Bergen County, NJ at 51.4ppt
  5. Wilmington, NC at 50.5ppt
  6. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania at 46.3ppt
  7. Louisville, Ky. at 45.2ppt
  8. New Orleans, LA at 41.8ppt
  9. Charleston, SC at 33.3ppt
  10. Decatur, Ala. at 24.1ppt

Information courtesy of a separate report from the Environmental Working Group

The chemicals are also often on the packaging of some foods, which can then absorb some of the toxins.

Washing dishes with PFAS and coating crops with PFAS-laden pesticides creates runoff that seeps into drinking water sources.

DuPont was at the center of a PFAS-related controversy last month when it, along with two other chemical companies, agreed to settle pollution complaints for about $1.2 billion.

While many manufacturers have phased out the use of certain PFAS, such as PFOA, the chemicals have extraordinarily long half-lives, in some cases up to ten years.

The half-life of a substance is the time it takes for half of the original amount of a chemical to break down or disappear.

For example, perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), one of the most studied PFAS chemicals, is estimated to have a half-life ranging from a few years to more than a decade in the environment before breaking down.

Earlier this month, researchers at the US Geological Survey, a federally-led survey, tested water sources at more than 700 sites across the country for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS).

They found that 45 percent of drinking water sources contained at least one PFAS — with the highest concentrations in the Great Plains, the Great Lakes, the East Coast and Central/Southern California.

The team’s tests were limited to 32 types of PFAS out of more than 12,000 out there, meaning thousands of chemicals could have gone undetected. If so, it may indicate that the problem is even bigger than the study shows.