09 July 2019
Frustrated by the EPA's inaction, states are moving to address PFAS substances, an old class of chemicals linked to the pollution of drinking water.
An editorial published in Environmental Health today suggests that research on perfluorinated alkylate substances (PFAS) and their dangerous health effects was not revealed until several decades after it was conducted.
PFAS chemicals were used in fire fighting foams, which is why areas near military sites across the U.S. have been found contaminated. (Credit: U.S. Pacific Fleet)<p>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.</p><p>"It's very challenging to avoid PFASs in consumer products," Laurel Schaider, a research scientists at Silent Spring Institute, told EHN. </p><p>They were also used in fire fighting foams, which is why areas near military sites across the U.S. have been found contaminated. </p><p>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.</p><p>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. </p><p>The editorial comes as communities across the U.S. continually uncover dangerous amounts of the chemicals in water supplies. Just in the past week, Michigan <a href="https://www.mlive.com/news/kalamazoo/index.ssf/2018/07/parchment_pfas_levels_prompt_l.html" target="_blank">declared a state of emergency</a> 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. </p><p>Michigan isn't alone: In May, an <a href="https://www.ewg.org/research/report-110-million-americans-could-have-pfas-contaminated-drinking-water#.W19MSNhKjCS" target="_blank">analysis released by the Environmental Working Group</a> reported that more than 1,500 drinking water systems, serving up to 110 million Americans, may be contaminated with PFAS compounds. </p><p>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. </p>
Credit: Doug Wallick/flickr<p>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. </p><p>The studies were eventually released to the EPA, which used them in <a href="https://pubs.acs.org/doi/10.1021/es2011622" target="_blank">further studies and reports</a> on PFAS.</p><p>The chemicals had also been found in production workers' blood in 1976, and PFAS have been found to <a href="https://www.ewg.org/research/pfcs-global-contaminants/pfoa-pervasive-pollutant-human-blood-are-other-pfcs#.W19z89JKjD4" target="_blank">transfer to babies</a> as far back as <a href="https://static.ewg.org/reports/2003/pfcs/baby_blood.pdf?_ga=2.205771987.1795238571.1532975997-98866372.1532975997" target="_blank">1981</a>. 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. </p><p>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." </p><p>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.</p><p>"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.</p><p>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. </p><p>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. </p><p>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.</p><p>3M <a href="https://www.ag.state.mn.us/Office/PressRelease/201803_3M_SettlementSummary.asp" target="_blank">settled</a> 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. </p><p>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. </p><p>"Up to this point, it's been a kind of Band-Aid approach," he said. </p><h3><a href="https://www.ehn.org/pfas-water-toxic-health-problems-2534555939.html" target="_blank">Related: Another potential PFAS problem—weight gain</a></h3><p>With the new settlement, the state has created working groups to decide what projects the money should fund, he said. </p><p>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.</p><p>Bilotts's <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2016/01/10/magazine/the-lawyer-who-became-duponts-worst-nightmare.html" target="_blank">first case</a> was against DuPont, which settled. And over the past 20 years, he tried to forward studies and data to the EPA, he told EHN. </p><p>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. </p><p>Once the science came back, individuals who had one of the six diseases linked to PFASs were able to sue DuPont.</p><p>Prior to the lawsuits, people had not known that there were PFASs in their drinking water, Bilott said. </p><p>"These were things that could have been avoided if handled properly by the companies," he said. </p><p>A spokesperson for 3M did not return a request for comment as of publication.</p>
As we celebrate a World Bicycle Day like no other, can the U.S. keep the momentum and attention the coronavirus pandemic has brought to bicycling?
Twenty-one species molt from brown to white to survive the winter season. But climate change has created a mismatch between their snowy camouflage and surroundings.