Scientists Conducting Research into Fluorinated Pollutants Known As PFAs

NEW YORK - Scientists have been placing a growing emphasis on a series of commonly-found – but until recently misunderstood – chemicals typically utilized in the creation of consumer products such as water-resistant clothing, stain-resistant furniture, nonstick cookware, and more, focusing mainly on their intrusion into the environment and the subsequent potential health risks to human beings.

Perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl are perfluorinated chemicals – or PFAs for short – were created in the mid-20th century and have found widespread use in creating non-stick items serving a variety of uses, including in plastic and rubber used to make food wrappers, umbrellas, tents, carpets and firefighting foam. PFAs are resistant to water, oil, and heat, and their omnipresence in today’s society has resulted in these chemicals making their way into the environment...including our drinking water.

Testing has revealed PFAs in rivers, lakes, and drinking water supplies, according to reports; subsequently, PFAs are now being actually being found in people, particularly in their bloodstreams. And the reason that this is occurring is due to the resiliency of these chemicals, as they often take an extremely long amount of time to break down in the environment...or the human body. As a result, a person could have PFAs in their blood for years, or even decades, experts say, and if these pollutants are saturated in a person’s local environment, they could have a continual source of contamination ensuring non-stop exposure.

However, is exposure to PFAs harmful, and if so, what are the risks? These are questions that scientists are currently not able to provide answers to, as their research into PFAs is essentially in its earliest stages. In fact, a current legal safety limit of exposure to PFAs hasn’t even been established yet by any group that governs public environmental or health issues. Science needs to provide answers before PFAs can be properly regulated, experts say. Regardless, the Environmental Protection Agency has made note of the fact that it intends to eventually establish legal safety limit for certain PFAs in drinking water, although what types – there are currently over 5,000 and growing – and the amounts have not been revealed as of yet.

The amount of money going into public research of PFAs has been steadily increasing by groups such as the National Institutes of Health, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and multiple state university systems. One issue that makes research into PFAs difficult, however, is the fact that current regulations that govern chemicals in the United States do not require that a chemical has to be proven to be hazardous before it can be sold; instead, the EPA must make a determination following testing that a given chemical poses a risk under specific circumstances in order for action to be taken, and normally this only happens after health concerns are expressed by the public.

Early testing of PFAs has established some of the potential risks the chemical can pose to the health and well-being of both environments and people; research has determined that a "probable link" exists between long-term exposure to a PFAs chemical called PFOA and kidney cancer and thyroid disease developed by people in West Virginia and Ohio who were allegedly exposed to the substance by chemical company DuPont; a class-action lawsuit is currently in the works.

A 2016 study found unsafe levels of PFAs in 194 out of 4,864 water supplies in 33 U.S. states. Covering two-thirds of drinking water supplies in the United States, the study found thirteen states accounted for 75% of the detections, and firefighting foam was singled out as a major contributor. In addition, a 2018 report to Congress indicated that "at least 126 drinking water systems on or near military bases" were contaminated with PFAS compounds.

Scientific studies of both humans and rodents have resulted in similar findings, lending credence to the worries that PFAs pose serious health risks. However, scientists working on research and testing into PFAs still say that they are approximately two years away from concrete answers. However, it certainly can’t be expected that the answers – when they eventually come – will be anything positive. But in the meantime, supporting programs that look at risks to the environment can help, as can reaching out to your local legislators and lawmakers to tighten chemical production oversight and regulation.

After all, if perfluorinated chemicals were supposed to be in the environment – and our bodies – wouldn’t Mother Nature have put them there already?