Author: Keaton Nara (COL, 22)
- PFAs are harmful chemicals that last for a long time
- PFAs pose several health risks, including cancer, immune deficiencies, and child-development complications
- We are exposed to PFAs through drinking water, some commercial products (i.e. nonstick cookware, some cosmetics, etc.,), contaminated food, and breastmilk
- To combat these issues, we should advocate for policy change and updated EPA regulations
What Are PFAs?
In short, Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAs) are harmful chemicals that last for a really long time. PFAs are actually commonly referred to as “forever chemicals”, as some variations of these chemicals can stay in our body for up to 35 years. PFAs are used in many common commercial products and have already negatively affected our environment and human health.
How is Human Health Impacted by PFAs?
Exposure to PFAs may lead to cancer, reproductive issues, endocrine disruption, and more. When pregnant people are exposed to PFAs, we find that these exposures directly affect the fetuses. These exposures can lead to “abnormal growth in utero…low birth weight, and…increased risk of childhood obesity and infections”. Since PFAs disrupt brain development, we also find that exposure can lead to immune deficiencies, and even a decreased impact of vaccines in children. As vaccines become more important to our health during COVID-19, PFAs should be a rising concern for our children.
The environment is similarly affected by PFAs. In marine life, we have seen seabirds with reproductive damage, immune system shutdown in mussels, tissue toxicity in dolphins, and so much more. Some might argue that we should begin to view the impacts of PFAs on marine life as a preview into what PFAs can do to humans. Marine life has experienced more concentrated exposures to PFAs, since there is significant PFAs contamination in water. But if PFA pollution continues, humans themselves will become more exposed to PFAs through drinking water, and the consumption of produce and animals that are also exposed to PFAs.
How Are We Being Exposed?
Not only are PFAs not regulated in our drinking water, but PFAs are used in a lot of popular products– including non-stick cookware, carpet treatments, cardboard packaging, and even some cosmetics. Furthermore, as marine life and wild animals are exposed to PFAs-contaminated water, consuming these animals leads to risk of directly consuming PFAs.
Another important exposure pathway is through breastmilk. Studies have found that “most people in the United States and other industrialized countries have measurable amounts of PFAS in their blood”, and that these PFAs can be transmitted to an infant through breastfeeding.
How Are We Just Hearing About This?
To be honest, some communities have been fully aware of the dangers of PFAs for decades. Some companies even have internal documents dating back to 1950 on the recognized dangers of PFAs, refused to disclose these dangers or change their manufacturing practices. But since these PFAs-treated products were economically advantageous to these companies, the personal reward of wealth outweighed the permanent damage to consumers’ health.
What Treatment Can I Seek and What Should I Do?
While this information is daunting, there are solutions in discussion. There are several organizations dedicated to confronting PFAs pollution and demanding regulation in our water supply. More conversations and bills about PFAs have been introduced in recent years. Unfortunately, there is no current medical treatment for PFAs. The simple answer is that we must reduce our exposure to PFAs and let the PFAs that are already in our body excrete themselves in time. We can avoid certain consumer products, test the quality of our local garden soil when growing food, invest in water filtration systems, and advocate for policy changes to regulate PFAs in our water and products.
For Decades, Polluters Knew PFAS Chemicals Were Dangerous But Hid Risks From Public. (n.d.). EWG. Retrieved February 15, 2022, from https://www.ewg.org/pfastimeline/
Gross, L. (2020, September 23). These Everyday Toxins May Be Hurting Pregnant Women and Their Babies (Published 2020). The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/09/23/parenting/pregnancy/pfas-toxins-chemicals.html
PFAS and Breastfeeding | ATSDR. (2021, November 19). Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. Retrieved February 15, 2022, from https://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/pfas/health-effects/pfas-breastfeeding.html
PFAS Exposure Assessment Community Update | ATSDR. (2021). Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. Retrieved February 15, 2022, from https://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/pfas/activities/assessments/online-session.html
PFAS exposure linked with worse COVID-19 outcomes | News | Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health. (2020, December 31). Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Retrieved February 15, 2022, from https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/news/hsph-in-the-news/pfas-exposure-linked-with-worse-covid-19-outcomes/
PFAS part one: What are PFAS and how are they impacting marine ecosystems? (2021, May 18). Seaside Sustainability. Retrieved February 15, 2022, from https://www.seasidesustainability.org/post/pfas-part-one-what-are-pfas-and-how-are-they-impacting-marine-ecosystems
Potential health effects of PFAS chemicals | ATSDR. (n.d.). Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. Retrieved February 15, 2022, from https://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/pfas/health-effects/index.html
What are PFAS chemicals, and where are they found? (n.d.). EWG. Retrieved February 15, 2022, from https://www.ewg.org/pfaschemicals/what-are-forever-chemicals.html