At ‘forever chemicals’ event, EWG scientists advance debate on cancer risk, tap water

Three EWG scientists partnered with university researchers at a major conference to discuss the toxic “forever chemicals” known as PFAS, including the link between PFAS and cancer and how to filter PFAS out of tap water.

They spoke at the Center for PFAS and Cancer Joint Virtual Symposium earlier this month. EWG was one of the organizers of the event. Our participation grew from our work mapping the PFAS contamination crisis and advocating to turn off the tap of these chemicals.

Senior EWG Toxicologist Alexis Temkin, Ph.D., presented on “Application of the Key Characteristics of Carcinogens to PFAS,” based on her peer-reviewed work evaluating the scientific literature on forever chemicals and their links to biological functions that promote cancer development.

And EWG’s Vice President of Science Investigations, Research and Development Olga Naidenko, Ph.D., moderated a panel on PFAS, public health and policy. During that panel, Sydney Evans, EWG senior science analyst, data science research, shared findings from her work last year testing the efficacy of filters to reduce PFAS in drinking water.

PFAS are known as “forever chemicals” because once released into the environment they do not break down and they can build up in the body.

The conference focused on the links between PFAS and cancer. But that is just one of the health problems associated with PFAS. Very low doses have been linked to suppression of the immune system. Studies show exposure to very low levels of PFAS also can harm fetal development and reduce vaccine effectiveness.

Together with Indiana University and other EWG researchers, Temkin investigated 26 of the class of thousands of forever chemicals, supplementing her literature search with peer-reviewed articles and other data. She found many of the PFAS exhibit several of the 10 broadly accepted key characteristics of how substances lead to cancer in humans, such as suppression of the immune system, triggering of chronic inflammation and interaction with cell signaling receptors.

But she also noted that more research needs to be done. “This is a big chemical class with a lot of missing data for a lot of different chemicals,” she said at the conference, adding that there is a “need to investigate and screen poorly characterized PFAS.”

Forever chemicals and toxicity

After the event, Temkin said her study “helps bolster the importance of regulating PFAS as a class of chemicals, not individual chemicals, because there were shared or similar  toxicities among different PFAS.”

In a separate interview, Naidenko shared her impressions of the conference and how broad the field of research on PFAS toxicity is now.

“It’s like environmental monitoring, where the more we look, the more we find. That is the case for PFAS toxicity. We’re looking at PFAS in diseases that did not previously have associations with these chemicals,” she said.

One emerging association researchers discussed at the conference is between PFAS in the blood of a pregnant person and increased risk of childhood leukemia. Rena Jones, Ph.D., an investigator at the National Cancer Institute, presented her research on this health harm, which Naidenko said was eye-opening, since little is known about this association.

Tackling the PFAS problem

EWG has mapped the sites of PFAS-contaminated drinking water supply for millions of Americans at more than 5,000 locations in all 50 states, the District of Columbia and four territories.

The Environmental Protection Agency is taking steps to tackle the PFAS pollution problem, proposing in March 2023 to set bold new limits of 4 parts per trillion in drinking water for the notorious forever chemicals PFOA, once used to make Teflon, and PFOS, formerly used in Scotchguard. It also proposed limits for PFNA, PFHxS, PFBS and GenX in drinking water.

But the agency has not yet finalized the standards. In the meantime, some states are taking steps to restrict PFAS in certain products. Consumers can also reduce their exposure to forever chemicals, for example, by buying water filters, among other actions.

In her presentation, Evans highlighted her tests, which found four water filters that lower the detected PFAS in sampled drinking water by nearly 100 percent.

“A lot of the conference was about the forefront of PFAS health research, pushing the limits of what we know about PFAS,” Evans said. “My talk was very different and consumer-focused.”

She also noted how buying a water filter to remove PFAS from drinking water at home is a viable near-term measure, but that confronting the forever chemicals contamination crisis will require new state, local and federal action.

Evans also remarked that water filters are not an equitable way to tackle PFAS, because they’re available only to those who can afford them – so regulators need to act to protect all Americans.

“To truly address the root cause, we must prioritize regulatory interventions and community-scale changes that tackle PFAS at the source,” said Evans.

EWG will continue to study the scope of the contamination problem and advocate for the government to turn off the tap of these toxic chemicals.


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