No one is interested in fixing the problem.
For decades, it was the secret behind the magic show of homemaking across the US. Applied to a pan, it could keep a fried egg from sticking to the surface. Soaked into a carpet, it could shrug off spills of red wine. Sprayed onto shoes and coats, it could keep the kids dry on a rainy day.
But the most clandestine maneuver of perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFOA, was much less endearing: seeping into the blood and organs of hundreds of millions of people who used products containing the chemical.
Seeping like a mf, fr fr.
Most people who’ve heard of the chemical likely know about it because it was found to be toxic and removed from consumer goods in 2015 after decades of use, leading to modern boasts of “PFOA-free” on product packaging. In recent years, PFOA has also become the target of widespread regulatory action, news media attention and even a Hollywood movie as contaminated drinking water was discovered in hundreds of communities across the country.
While most concerns about the chemical’s health risks have centered on communities where research has linked PFOA to cancer and other serious illnesses, public health researchers say it serves as a klaxon of something more insidious.
PFOA is just one of dozens of modern-day chemicals that are found in the bodies of the majority of Americans, regardless of where they live. Research has also shown that more Americans are facing a growing number of ailments and disorders, from autoimmune disease to developmental disorders such as autism and some cancers. Scientists are increasingly concerned these two truths are linked, and some believe that the American public and lawmakers alike are dangerously unaware of the perils lurking in their veins.
“It’s very hard for people to understand exposure and effects when they can’t see a smoking gun,” said Linda Birnbaum, a former director of the National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences.
Sorting out the causes of troubling public health trends is extremely difficult. For example, how much is due to aging demographics, personal behaviors, diagnostic changes or environmental exposures? But in recent years, scientists have accumulated enough data to conclude with confidence that humans face significant health risks from exposure to common commercial chemicals, and that regulations designed to protect them are failing.
“I do think this area has been badly overridden by industry,” said Wendy Wagner, an attorney and professor at the University of Texas at Austin School of Law who has written about chemical contaminants. “People don’t realize that we actually encourage and even subsidize the production of tens of thousands of chemicals, while imposing essentially no requirements on manufacturers to test their safety. Nor do we ask whether we need the chemical, whether it’s useful, whether there are safer substitutes – or what it’s doing to the environment.”
When to declare a chemical safe or unsafe is critical. Experts say that due to flaws in federal regulation, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is perennially playing catch up. The majority of the 86,000 consumer chemicals registered with the agency have never received vigorous toxicity testing.
The EPA doesn’t dispute that untested chemicals have been approved for use, but told the Examination that “far fewer” than 86,000 chemicals are still used today. The agency further stated that it believes it has made “significant progress” in addressing the risks of chemicals over the past four decades and in recent years has worked to draft a bevy of new rules and actions to address remaining high-priority risks.
But the dangers of chemical exposure go far beyond PFOA.
Premature babies in intensive care units appear to have higher amounts of plastics chemicals called phthalates in their bodies, likely from exposure to breathing equipment, according to a 2020 paper authored by Chris Gennings, director of the division of biostatistics at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York, and colleagues. Phthalate mixtures, the report noted, can impact “neurobehavioral development”, with other studies finding links to aggression, inattention and rule-breaking behavior in boys from prenatal exposure. Gennings adds that even healthy children face similar risks from plastics chemicals still commonly found in baby bottles.
And studies show even the most cautious parents may not be able to escape the sins of the past.
Over the last 10 years, new research in the field of epigenetics, which studies how behavior and environmental exposures can affect how genes work, has found increasing evidence that harm from chemical exposures may become inherited. The chemicals change how the body operates, passing the changes down through two or three generations, and maybe even more. While the effect is well established in animal studies, researchers are now going about the much more difficult task of studying people and sorting correlation from causation, according to Carrie Breton, an environmental epidemiologist at the University of Southern California who published a review of recent research on epigenetics in 2021.
Sixty-one years ago, marine biologist Rachel Carson wrote Silent Spring, a book often hailed as revolutionary for its compelling communication of the risks of pesticides and other substances. The book is credited with helping propel a popular movement that led to the creation of the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), as well as the federal Clean Water and Clean Air Acts, which have dramatically reduced environmental pollution over the past half-century.
But, experts say, health threats from commercial chemicals remain fundamentally the same. So what went wrong?
Sarah Vogel, senior vice-president for healthy communities at the non-profit Environmental Defense Fund, says US environmental standards have improved in some ways since the publication of Silent Spring, especially in the first few decades after the book was published. Urban waterways like Ohio’s Cuyahoga River aren’t catching on fire anymore. Neighborhoods are no longer being sprayed with dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT), which has been linked to breast cancer, hypertension and obesity in the daughters of women exposed to the bug killer. Vogel’s organization and others successfully pushed for a widespread ban of the pesticide in the US in 1972.
Progress on chemicals in consumer products, however, has lagged behind, Vogel said.
Vogel says that over the past several decades, advancements in the understanding of the human genome, microbiome and other bodily systems have allowed researchers to begin developing a better picture of these types of non-cancer risks from exposure to even very small amounts of chemicals.
One of the most alarming varieties is “endocrine disruptors”, a moniker given to any substance that interferes with the body’s transmission of hormones – or even mimics them. This causes cascading effects in the body that may be difficult to predict or understand, impacting metabolism, energy levels, reproduction, development and mood. Scientists believe that many “forever chemicals”, including PFOA, operate this way by accumulating in the body and tinkering with its organs and systems.
Birnbaum, the former director of the National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences, compares the effect to medicines such as birth control pills. Like medicines, commercial chemicals also alter the body’s processes.
“You’re changing the hormonal environment, which has an impact,” Birnbaum said. “The difference between drugs and chemicals that we get exposed to via consumer products is that drugs have to be tested before they go on the market. Chemicals that are in commerce don’t.”
It’s only after it’s way too late that they’re even talking about the issue.
And this is The Guardian.
You won’t see this in The New York Times or The Washington Post.
45% of US tap water contains PFAS, and the government and health authorities don’t give a single f–k about it.
We have multiple major cities with unfathomably toxic water thats full of PFAS, pharmaceutical drugs, heavy metals, fluoride, and countless other obscene toxins, and… pic.twitter.com/UqYA28SU4E
— Inversionism (@Inversionism) August 31, 2023