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Study shows newer PFAS chemicals 'may pose more risk' than those they replaced

  • Study shows newer PFAS chemicals 'may pose more risk' than those they replaced

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A new peer-reviewed study refutes claims by the chemical industry that the next generation of toxic fluorinated compounds, or PFAS, is safer than two notorious PFAS chemicals linked to cancer and other diseases that were pulled off the U.S. market.

The study by a team of scientists at Auburn University, published in the Chemical Engineering Journal, says so-called short-chain PFAS compounds are “more widely detected, more persistent and mobile in aquatic systems, and thus may pose more risks on the human and ecosystem health” than their long-chain predecessors. 

The most notorious long-chain PFAS chemicals are PFOA, formerly used to make DuPont’s Teflon, and PFOS, formerly an ingredient in 3M’s Scotchgard. They were phased out in the U.S. under pressure from the Environmental Protection Agency after revelations of their health hazards. EWG estimates that those and other PFAS chemicals contaminate the drinking water of up to 110 million Americans.

“This study shows that the chemical industry’s claim that the next generation of PFAS are far safer than the group of older, long-chain fluorinated chemicals cannot pass the scrutiny of actual scientific, peer-reviewed data,” said Olga Naidenko, Ph.D., EWG’s vice president for science investigations.

So-called short-chain PFAS compounds are more widely detected, more persistent and mobile in aquatic systems

Long-chain PFAS chemicals have eight carbon atoms, whereas the short-chain alternatives have six or fewer. There is growing agreement among scientists that the entire class of PFAS chemicals may be hazardous.

Chemical companies have claimed short-chain PFAS chemicals do not pose a risk to human health or the environment. According to the Fluoro Council, an industry trade group, the new short-chain chemicals “have undergone rigorous regulatory reviews” by the EPA and “as a condition of being allowed on the market, extensive health and environmental safety data had to be generated for today’s PFAS.”

The Auburn researchers reviewed the state of science about the occurrence, impacts and treatment of short-chain PFAS chemicals. Key findings include:

  • Various short-chain PFAS chemicals are widely detected in drinking water supplies.
  • Short-chain PFAS chemicals may harm both human and ecosystem health.
  • Existing drinking water treatment approaches for the removal of long-chain PFAS are less effective for short-chain PFAS chemicals.

“This new analysis reviewed more than 200 individual studies and showed that short-chain PFAS compounds can present a real problem for community water systems’ efforts to provide safe drinking water to the public,” Naidenko added.

The chemical industry knew about the risks from long-chain PFAS chemicals as early as the late 1940s. But 3M, DuPont and other PFAS manufacturers kept that information secret until a landmark lawsuit forced the release of internal safety studies and other documents.

Numerous studies linked PFAS chemicals to testicular, kidney, liver and pancreatic cancer; weakened childhood immunity; changes in the development of the fetus; and disruption of the hormonal system. The latest test results published by the National Toxicology Program demonstrated that short-chain PFAS chemicals can cause harm to the hormonal and reproductive systems that is similar to the effects of long-chain PFAS.

EWG has developed a health guideline of 1 part per trillion for each PFAS chemical detected in drinking water, drawing on studies of PFOA and PFOS and the chemical and toxicological similarity of many PFAS chemicals.

In response to public outcry about the PFAS contamination crisis across the country, both chambers of Congress recently passed bipartisan legislation that would begin to monitor and clean up PFAS contamination sites around the country.

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