Scientists Say “Forever Chemicals” Should Be Managed as a Chemical Class to Improve Human and Environmental Health

A group of scientists, including an IU environmental chemist, said thousands of PFAS chemicals should be treated as a single chemical class to improve efforts to reduce the chemicals’ harm to human health and the environment.
July 8, 2020

A group of scientists, including an Indiana University environmental chemist, said governments and industry should treat a family of thousands of persistent and potentially hazardous chemicals known as PFAS as a single chemical class.

In a new paper, the international group of scientists from universities, health agencies and environmental organizations said per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, known as PFAS, are so similar that they should be treated as a single chemical class, instead of individually, a proposal that could increase the efficiency and effectiveness of efforts to reduce the chemicals’ harm to human health and the environment.

“They’ve been called ‘forever chemicals’ because once they’re out there, it’s impossible to break them down,” said Marta Venier, associate scientist at Indiana University’s O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs and a co-author of the paper. “So, the best approach that we suggest, and there’s scientific evidence for that, is to treat them as a group and regulate them as a group. This approach will allow us to eliminate them promptly from new products as opposed to taking a very long time.”

A group of scientists said more than 5,000 PFAS chemicals should be treated as a single chemical class like some pesticides and fire retardants.

Manmade PFAS chemicals have been used since the 1940s to produce industrial products resistant to water, oil, grease and stains.

Some of the most famous name brands of the 20th century, like Teflon, Scotchgard and Gore-Tex are PFAS products. Thousands more products like cosmetics, sunscreen, shampoo and even pizza boxes and microwaveable popcorn bags contain PFAS chemicals. PFAS chemicals are also used in pesticides, medical procedures and many other applications.

They have also been found in drinking water in Indianapolis and on several military bases around the state.

PFAS chemical are a part of our lives due to their utility, but may be putting the health of Hoosiers at risk.

Some PFAS chemicals, like PFOS and PFOA, have been linked to serious adverse health conditions like an increased risk of kidney and testicular cancer, increased cholesterol levels, increased risk of high blood pressure or pre-eclampsia in pregnant women, decreased birth weight and decreased vaccine response in children.

The scientists say all of the thousands of PFAS chemicals are chemically similar and should be addressed as a single chemical class to improve the effectiveness of government and industry responses to deal with the chemicals.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said exposure to high levels of PFAS also affects the immune system, potentially making COVID-19 more deadly to some people.

Those health risks were found in the most commonly studied PFAS chemicals, PFOA and PFOS, but it’s not known definitively whether those risks are present in all PFAS chemicals.

Companies are not required to test a chemical’s safety before they begin selling it. That responsibility is left to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

But with thousands of existing PFAS chemicals still needing review and new PFAS and other chemicals being introduced every year, the EPA could take centuries to finish its review of all chemicals.

While those reviews await, PFAS chemicals continue to make their way into the environment and our bodies.

Venier said that is why she and her colleagues, including the former director of the National Institute for Health’s National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences, are pushing for the government and industries to manage PFAS as a single chemical class.

“There’s approximately 5,000 individual PFAS compounds, and if we use the approach of measuring, studying both their presence in the environment and the toxicological effects of each individual chemical it would take forever. We don’t have the time nor the resources to do that,” said Venier.

The researchers said the thousands of PFAS chemicals share similar molecular structures, environmental properties and known and potential biological hazards. Those similarities warrant government and industry treating them as a class, like they have for some pesticides and flame retardants.

Thousands of chemicals fall into the PFAS family.

“We all think it’s time to stop allowing PFAS to accumulate in our bodies and in the environment. In this case, the health and wellbeing of not only us but the next generation is at play,” said Venier. “We hope that legislators will listen to this message and start acting to regulate these chemicals as a group and move on this quickly so we can stop more PFAS from getting into the environment and into our bodies.”

The EPA has only recently begun to address the spread and toxicity of PFAS in the environment, but has not significantly affected the availability of the chemicals.

The Obama administration established a lifetime health advisory of 70 parts per trillion for two PFAS chemicals, PFAS and PFOA. The advisories were non-regulatory, meaning the EPA could not enforce that limit.

In January 2019, the Trump administration announced it would create a plan to assess and limit the danger posed by PFAS chemicals. The EPA’s PFAS Action Plan was unveiled the following month, setting a broad outline of short- and long-term regulatory goals.

In the approximately 17 months after, the EPA has begun many regulatory processes, including developing methods to test for 29 PFAS chemicals, adding 172 PFAS chemicals to the Toxics Release Inventory and proposing a rule that would add more regulations to imported products that contain PFAS coatings. Those actions have addressed only a limited amount of PFAS chemicals.

Venier said when chemicals are taken off the market, it’s most often not due to EPA intervention but bad publicity.

Consumers are also becoming increasingly aware of chemicals in common products and influenced those markets.

The Home Depot and Lowe’s stopped selling rugs and carpets with PFAS, and some packaging companies decided to remove PFAS chemicals from its food packaging due to “environmental concerns.”

The DuPont Chemical Co., which formerly produced PFAS, said it would stop using some PFAS chemicals last year just before its executives and those from other PFAS producers were due to testify at a hearing by the House Oversight and Reform Committee.

After Congressional nudging, the U.S. Department of Defense began funding research to phase out its PFAS firefighting foam, known as Aqueous Film Forming Foam. It has also worked to identify where the foam was used and which installations had drinking water affected by PFAS.

Several former and current installations in Indiana, including the former Grissom Air Force Base and Naval Support Activity Crane were identified as being places where AFFF was used. Subsequent water testing revealed PFAS chemicals were present in drinking water, but far below the existing health advisory.

Navy officials also offered to test the drinking water wells of residents living outside NSA Crane. Only seven wells were sampled, and PFAS was only identified at one well at 1 part per trillion.

While the EPA works its way through the PFAS inventory, researchers in Indiana continue to work to find the extent of PFAS chemical contamination in the environment.

Venier also serves as a principal investigator for the EPA’s Great Lakes Integrated Atmospheric Deposition Network at IU. She and her team will soon begin testing for PFAS chemicals in the Great Lakes.

Scientists Say “Forever Chemicals” Should Be Managed as a Chemical Class to Improve Human and Environmental Health