We’d like to think that product developers and decision-makers have what’s best for the consumer in mind. For their health, for their time, and for their money. Unfortunately, we know this is not the case, which has been proven again with this recent revelation. According to this new analysis, the makers of “forever chemicals” covered up these products’ dangerous health consequences for decades.
‘Forever Chemical‘ Makers Hid Health Risks For Decades
Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are a group of man-made chemicals that are found in a wide range of products, including food packaging, non-stick cookware, and firefighting foam. These chemicals are known as “forever chemicals” because they do not break down in the environment and can accumulate in the human body over time. According to a new analysis of previously secret industry documents by UC San Francisco (UCSF) researchers, the chemical industry suppressed their knowledge of health harms caused by exposure to PFAS for decades. (1)
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The new paper, published on May 31, 2023, in Annals of Global Health, examines documents from DuPont and 3M, the largest manufacturers of PFAS. The analysis reveals that the industry knew about the health risks associated with PFAS exposure as early as the 1950s but chose to keep this information hidden from the public. The industry used a variety of tactics to delay public awareness of PFAS toxicity, including funding studies that downplayed the risks, lobbying against regulations, and even threatening to sue researchers who spoke out about the dangers of PFAS.
“These documents reveal clear evidence that the chemical industry knew about the dangers of PFAS and failed to let the public, regulators, and even their own employees know the risks,” said Tracey J. Woodruff, Ph.D., professor and director of the UCSF Program on Reproductive Health and the Environment (PRHE), a former senior scientist and policy advisor at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and senior author of the paper. (2)
This is the first time that anyone has looked at forever chemicals in this way. The research team used the same tactics developed by previous researchers to expose the tobacco industry to the same scheme. This is how they were able to realize just how much the forever chemical industry had been hiding from us and for how long.
For example, well-known non-stick cookware company Teflon knew of the risks as early as 1961. The company’s Chief of Toxicology discovered that the chemical could increase the size of the liver of rats at low doses and advised the company to reconsider its course of action. That is just one example of many instances of companies turning a blind eye to health risks in order to push their product forward and save their bottom line.
The Health Risks
PFAS exposure has been linked to a variety of health problems, including cancer, liver damage, and developmental issues in children. The chemicals are so pervasive that they have been found in the blood of nearly every person on the planet. Despite this, the industry continued to produce and use PFAS in a wide range of products, putting the health of millions of people at risk. (3)
The industrial and military uses of PFAS have been phased out in recent years. However, the chemicals are still present in many consumer products, including stain-resistant fabrics and nonstick cookware. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has classified PFAS as an emerging contaminant and is conducting research into the health risks associated with exposure.
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The Call for Action
The new analysis of industry documents is a wake-up call for regulators and the public. It highlights the need for stronger regulations to protect people from the health risks associated with PFAS exposure. The researchers are calling for a ban on the production and use of PFAS and increased funding for research into safer alternatives. It highlights the need for tighter regulations and more cautionary ones against these industries.
“Having access to these documents allows us to see what the manufacturers knew and when, but also how polluting industries keep critical public health information private,” said first author Nadia Gaber, MD, Ph.D., who led the research as a PRHE fellow and is now an emergency medicine resident. “This research is important to inform policy and move us towards a precautionary rather than reactionary principle of chemical regulation.”
The Bottom Line
The chemical industry’s cover-up of PFAS health risks is a stark reminder of the importance of transparency and accountability in the corporate world. The industry’s actions have put the health of millions of people at risk, and it is time for regulators to take action to protect the public. The new analysis of industry documents is a step in the right direction, but much more needs to be done to address the ongoing threat posed by “forever chemicals.“
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- “The Devil they Knew: Chemical Documents Analysis of Industry Influence on PFAS Science.” Annals of Global Health. Nadia Gaber, et al.
- “Secret industry documents reveal that makers of PFAS ‘forever chemicals’ covered up their health dangers.” Phys. University of California, San Francisco. June 1, 2023.
- “PFOA, PFOS and Other PFAS.” EPA