Analysis finds government agencies are downplaying PFAS risks
Researchers have found that state and federal public health agencies downplay the risks associated with compounds like those contaminating the Cape Fear River and wells around a Bladen County chemical plant.
An analysis published Tuesday by the journal Environmental Health showed that agencies often underestimate the scientific evidence regarding the toxicity of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances. The agencies’ communication also failed to meet the needs of people who have been heavily exposed to PFAS compounds, according to a statement published by the newspaper.
PFAS are sometimes called “eternal chemicals” because of their tendency to stay in the body.
The study indicates that some PFAS compounds, such as perfluorooctanoic acid, known as PFOA, and perfluorooctane sulfonate, PFOS, have known levels of toxicity. These and other PFAS compounds have been replaced by similar chemicals that have already contaminated water supplies, he says.
“The experience of the Cape Fear River region in North Carolina illustrates how a population historically exposed to well-known legacy PFAS such as PFOA or PFOS may subsequently face water contamination from newer or lesser-known compounds,” the study says.
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State officials have been investigating a chemical plant near the Cape Fear River since 2017, when the Wilmington StarNews reported that researchers found a PFAS compound known as GenX and similar chemicals in the river.
Residents of Wilmington and other areas downstream from the plant get their drinking water from the river. GenX and other PFAS compounds were later found in more than 5,000 private wells around the plant.
Chemours, the factory owner, manufactures GenX there. The compound is also a byproduct of other processes there. The company has taken steps to reduce the amount of GenX that leaks into the river and into the air.
The Environmental Protection Agency released an assessment last year that showed GenX is more toxic than previously believed. Animal studies have found that oral exposure to the chemical can potentially cause effects on liver, kidney and immune system health, with a possible association with cancer, according to the assessment.
EPA Rating: GenX more toxic than expected; health effects may include liver, immune system
Chemours officials said the amount of GenX in the wells around the plant is not harmful.
The newspaper statement says a research team reviewed web pages, fact sheets and other online materials from local, state and national agencies on PFAS. Researchers also reviewed submissions from professional societies and nongovernmental organizations.
“Overall, they noted a failure to differentiate the risks faced by highly exposed communities from those of the general population, a failure to distinguish levels of evidence for different health outcomes, an overemphasis on the uncertainty of harm to health and a failure to discuss how to reduce exposure and risk of harm,” the statement read.
Much of the material limited discussion of the health risks of PFAS to equivocal statements about “certain studies” that have shown certain compounds “may” cause health effects, according to the statement.
“Community leaders report that health providers predictably read these messages to imply low overall evidence,” he said. “For some immune, liver, reproductive, and cancer outcomes such as kidney or testicular cancer, most or nearly all studies found harm from PFAS exposure.”
Jamie DeWitt, a professor at the University of East Carolina who co-authored the study, said there is strong experimental and observational evidence that supports a link between PFAS exposure and adverse effects such as as reduced vaccine responses and liver damage.
“Websites and agency fact sheets that use weak language like ‘may cause’ and ‘some studies’ of health outcomes mislead the public,” she said.
The study cites a statement from the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services.
“Whether or not you develop health problems after being exposed to PFAS depends on the amount, frequency and duration of exposure, as well as the PFAS you are exposed to,” the agency said. state, according to the study. “Personal factors such as age, lifestyle, and general health can impact your body’s ability to respond to chemical exposures.”
A state DHHS spokesperson released a statement in response to questions about the study and the citation. The statement included the quote cited in the study and stated that the potential for health effects of PFAS in humans is still under investigation.
“Researchers are working to better understand how exposure to PFAS could affect people’s health – specifically how exposure to PFAS in water and food can be harmful,” the statement said.
The statement says more research is needed, but some studies have shown that for some people, certain PFASs may increase the risk of certain types of cancer; affect the immune system; affect the growth, learning and behavior of infants and older children; reduce a woman’s chances of becoming pregnant; and cause other problems.
“Scientists are actively studying the health effects of PFAS to learn more,” the statement said. “NCDHHS continues to work with various federal and state partners to review all new information about the health and toxicity of these compounds and shares new information with communities as it becomes available.”
Alan Ducatman, a physician and professor emeritus at West Virginia University, was the lead author of the analysis.
“As a doctor who has had to counsel many people whose drinking water has been contaminated with PFAS – sometimes for decades – I know all too well the distress and confusion felt by hard-hit communities,” said he said in the statement. “Patients and physicians in PFAS-contaminated neighborhoods need accurate information on how to protect their health.”
The study concluded that immediate steps should be taken to review and improve official health communications on PFAS.
“The goals of improving communications should be to address the needs of communities at high risk of PFAS,” the analysis says. “There is a parallel need for health communications for the much larger group of people exposed to PFAS, which is almost all of us.”
Local News Editor Steve DeVane can be reached at [email protected]