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The Environmental Protection Agency issues its strongest statement yet on the danger of PFAS in drinking water


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Last month, Michael Regan, Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, made one of his agency’s strongest statements yet about the danger of “chemicals are forever.” New restrictions on those contaminants in drinking water “will prevent thousands of deaths and prevent tens of thousands of serious illnesses associated with PFAS,” Reagan said.

Scientists who study the health effects of chemicals say that while they cannot prove that any disease condition is associated with them, the statement is not an exaggeration. A growing body of scientific research has confirmed early suspicions that PFAS was linked to some types of cancer, and has added new links between the chemicals and developmental problems.

Jimmy DeWitt, an immunotoxicologist at East Carolina University, leads a lab dedicated to discovering how PFAS damages the immune system. The link may seem indirect, she said, but it’s true: If increased exposure to PFAS increases the risk of chronic diseases that can lead to death, decreasing exposure reduces the risk of death.

This is exactly how the agency calculated averted deaths. Reagan’s comments are based on the Environmental Protection Agency’s economic analysis of the costs and benefits of the proposed water standards, according to a statement from Chania Pran, EPA’s deputy press secretary. The rules regulate six types of PFAS, although there are thousands of chemicals in this category.

The document estimates that 7,357 deaths would be averted due to a decrease in bladder cancer, kidney cancer and cardiovascular disease. The calculations also include benefits from reducing disinfection by-products in the water, or chemicals left once the water has been treated. The EPA maintains that these chemicals will also be removed with the filtration required to handle PFAS.

Sean Lynch, a spokesperson for Maplewood-based 3M, wrote in an email that the EPA’s water rules “lack a sound scientific basis” and that the agency has not shown it needs to protect human health or the environment. The letters were not returned to the media office of Chemours, a subsidiary of DuPont that still produces fluorinated chemicals.

Expose links

PFAS chemicals were pioneered by 3M in the 1950’s. The company and another manufacturer, DuPont, make oil and water resistant chemicals for an amazing array of applications. Non-stick cookware coatings, waterproof clothing, dental floss and fire extinguishing foams are just a few of the places it is used today.

But the carbon-fluorine bonds that enable these uses also make the chemicals stable. It does not degrade in the environment, and some PFAS linger in the body for years.

Documents released after the company was sued from Minnesota show that 3M knew about the toxicity for decades from internal studies it conducted, and DuPont decided to cut women off its product lines in the 1980s because of internal studies showing birth defects in mice.

But public research on broader health effects has only progressed in the past two decades or so. Few chemicals have been well studied, the most famous being around the two oldest now-discontinued compounds, perfluorooctane sulfonate and PFOA.

There is now emerging scientific agreement that certain PFAS chemicals are linked to several health problems, according to an influential 2022 report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. reported sufficiently strong evidence to link exposure to PFAS to developmental problems in children exposed before and after birth, increased cholesterol in adults and children, kidney cancer in adults and decreased antibody response at all ages. Limited evidence suggests an increased risk of testicular and breast cancer, high blood pressure during pregnancy, and liver and thyroid problems.

The EPA’s proposed limit on PFAS in water systems set the standard for PFOA and PFOS roughly in the limit at which machines can detect chemicals. This is in part to protect developing fetuses who are exposed to PFAS in their mothers’ bodies through the placenta, and infants, who are exposed through breastmilk.

The evidence for these effects is strong enough that the National Academies report recommends that physicians perform additional screening for thyroid problems, cholesterol imbalances, kidney and testicular cancer, and ulcerative colitis in bowel disease in patients with high exposure to PFAS. For those most at risk, cholesterol screenings should begin in children up to two years of age; They should be evaluated for signs of testicular cancer and ulcerative colitis starting at age 15.

“They’re saying, ‘Hey, doctors, if you’re treating patients who live in areas contaminated with PFAS, you have to do more for those patients,'” DeWitt said.

developmental implications

Much energy in the scientific world to look at the effects of these chemicals has been galvanized by the work of the C8 science panel. This broad study of health links to PFAS exposure was part of a settlement with DuPont, after the company was sued for contaminating drinking water in the Ohio River Valley. (C8 is another name for the chemical PFOA, because of the molecular chain of 8 carbon-fluorine bonds.)

An influential study by Philippe Grandjean, professor of environmental medicine at the University of Southern Denmark, looked at the immune systems of children exposed to these chemicals.

Grandjean, who also co-leads a center dedicated to the study of PFAS at the University of Rhode Island, recruited about 656 expectant mothers in the Faroe Islands to study the effects of other environmental pollutants and continued to follow up with the children for years. He decided to examine PFAS as well, after publishing a study of the chemicals in lab mice.

They measured the amount of PFAS in the blood of children at various ages, including after typical childhood vaccinations. Grandjean said the findings, which he eventually published in 2012 in the Journal of the American Medical Association It shocked him – the more PFAS in a child’s blood, the fewer antibodies they would produce after the vaccine, as if their immune systems had been suppressed. The same association was made when the researchers looked at the amount of PFAS in the umbilical cord blood of newborn babies.

Part of the problem with developing babies, Grandjean said, is that a mother who breastfeeds for six months can transfer up to half of the PFAS in her body to the baby, where the chemicals are ten times more concentrated.

His work and several studies in a row on the same group of Faroese children left the conclusion that we are “affecting the most vulnerable stage of life in the next generation” with PFAS contamination which can cause unknown long-term effects.

Other research, including some of Grandjean’s, has linked the chemicals to issues like low birth weight. High blood pressure during pregnancy has also been linked to PFAS, including in the original C8 study.

stop flow

Phil Brown, co-director of the PFAS Project Laboratory at Northeastern University, said his lab is now working on a study in the United States that will build on some of Grandjean’s work studying children. DeWitt said she’s investigating how the specific molecule PFOA affects the way cells use energy, and actively ages them.

At the moment, DeWitt said, the connections may not be as clear as they are for other environmental pollutants, such as fine particulate matter in the air, which extensive research has shown can cause heart attacks and other fatal events from even short-term exposure.

But she said fine particulate matter, also known as soot, has been a known problem for more than a century; Scientists are still catching up to chemicals like PFAS.

“The way things work in our world, we have to produce lots and lots and lots of data about negative effects so that people think maybe we should change what we’re doing and move on to something else,” DeWitt said.

2023 StarTribune.

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

the quote: EPA Issues Strongest Statement Yet on PFAS Risk in Drinking Water (2023, April 10) Retrieved April 10, 2023 from https://phys.org/news/2023-04-epa-issues-strongest-statement- date. html

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