WASHINGTON – In a study published today in the journal Environmental Science & Technology Letters, a group of U.S. and international scientists emphasized that the current approach to regulating and managing the harm of the toxic fluorinated chemicals known as PFAS has failed to protect public health. The study recommended a new approach that classifies all PFAS as concerning and calls for an end to all non-essential use.
“The regulation of toxic PFAS chemicals using a one-chemical-at-a-time approach has completely failed to protect public health,” said David Q. Andrews, Ph.D., co-author of the article and a senior scientist at the Environmental Working Group. “Decades after knowing about the harms caused by PFAS such as DuPont’s Teflon and 3M’s Scotchgard, our government has not set laws banning use, establishing drinking water limits or even classifying these chemicals as hazardous substances and requiring cleanup.”
The extent of contamination is extensive. Studies have shown this class of chemicals migrates through the soil and water. EWG has mapped 1,582 PFAS contamination sites in 49 states.
The new study provides a scientific rationale for businesses and governments to consider PFAS as a class, eliminate non-essential uses of PFAS-based materials and develop new products that avoid PFAS altogether. PFAS are extremely persistent chemicals, numbering in the thousands, that accumulate in the environment and living organisms and can be highly mobile, leading to global contamination.
“The two most well-known PFAS – PFOA, formerly used to make Teflon, and PFOS, formerly an ingredient in Scotchgard – represent just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to understanding and managing the risks from PFAS chemicals,” said Andrews.
The Environmental Protection Agency classified more than 600 PFAS chemicals as being in active use and manufactured in commercial volumes, and thousands more have been identified.
In tests commissioned by EWG of the drinking water in major U.S. cities, 43 of 44 water systems had detectable PFAS and, on average, six different PFAS were found in the drinking water. Government tests of public water systems similarly found a complex mixture of four to 12 PFAS in every drinking water sample, at a combined average concentration of nearly 20 parts per trillion.
Exposure to a mixture of PFAS is impossible to avoid because different types of the compounds have infiltrated food wrappers, clothing, dust, food and water.
The EPA acknowledges exposure to PFOA and PFOS can cause “developmental impacts during pregnancy and to infants, cancer, liver damage, harm to the immune system, damage to the thyroid and other effects including changes in cholesterol,” and yet hundreds of similar chemicals have been allowed on the market.
In March, a peer-reviewed study by scientists at the Environmental Working Group and Indiana University found that 26 different PFAS compounds all displayed at least one characteristic of known human carcinogens.
Last week, the EPA finalized a rule regulating PFAS in consumer products that significantly weakens a public health protection proposed under the Obama administration. The final rule only requires notification from importers and approval from the agency when PFAS is used as a surface coating in a product, as it was in Teflon.
PFAS are called “forever chemicals” because they never break down in the environment. These chemicals are associated with cancer, reproductive and developmental harms, and reduced effectiveness of vaccines, among other health problems.
In a commentary published in Bloomberg Law last year, Andrews stated, “Without their consent, people have been made into test subjects for PFAS chemistry. This must end. Regulating PFAS chemicals as a class is the only way to protect public health.”
The new peer-reviewed publication was a collaborative research effort by 16 scientists from universities, government agencies and NGOs, including the Environmental Working Group.
The Environmental Working Group is a nonprofit, non-partisan organization that empowers people to live healthier lives in a healthier environment. Through research, advocacy and unique education tools, EWG drives consumer choice and civic action.