Major chemical companies were aware of the dangers forever chemicals posed to the public, years before they were forced to admit it. A new study in Annals of Global Health examined previously secret industry documents and saw exactly how manufacturers DuPont and 3M purposely distorted public knowledge about PFAS in their products.
PFAS, or per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances, are commonly called ‘forever chemicals’ because they won’t break down in the human body or in nature. They persist ‘forever.’ It’s also a term that categorizes over 12,000 chemicals found in many everyday products. Chemical exposure has been linked to cancer, infertility, birth defects, and more. Major manufacturers of these chemicals were well aware of some of these medical concerns decades before the public was made aware of this in the early 1990s, the study explained.
Researchers from the University of California San Francisco (UCSF) analyzed company documents from 1961 to 2006 to understand how chemical companies hid information about PFAS from regulators and the public. The documents used were from a case based in Delaware and were provided to Attorney Robert Billot, who was the first to successfully sue DuPont for PFAS contamination, according to the study. Documents analyzed show that as early as 1961, DuPont leadership knew that rats exposed to the chemicals used to make Teflon cookware coatings had enlarged livers. Both 3M and DuPont were also aware of two employees whose children were born with birth defects.
“Our review of industry documents shows that companies knew PFAS was ‘highly toxic when inhaled and moderately toxic when ingested’ by 1970, forty years before the public health community,” study authors wrote.
The documents discovered in that lawsuit were donated to the UCSF Chemical Industry Documents Library, which allowed researchers to analyze company strategy. If it sounds like you’ve heard that story before, you probably have. That case inspired the 2019 film Dark Waters, featuring Mark Ruffalo as Bilott.
According to Tracey J. Woodruff, a University of California San Francisco professor and a former policy advisor for the EPA, researchers categorized the documents to better understand the tactics that companies used. They looked at how chemical manufacturers had funded and supported the publishing of favorable research, and how those companies tried to suppress unfavorable research from the public.
“So industry works to basically distort what the science is saying, both either inside the company or outside the company,” Woodruff told Earther. “Changing or setting scientific standards, particularly those regulatory standards set by the government and then targeted dissemination.”
After public awareness began to increase in the late 1990s and into the early 2000s, DuPont continued to push for better optics. Susan Stalnecker, the former vice president of DuPont, even emailed the EPA in 2006 to ask for support. After writing, “We need [the] EPA to quickly (like first thing tomorrow) say the following” she goes on to list two specific talking points: 1. That “Consumer products sold under the Teflon brand are safe” and 2. “Further, to date, there are no human health effects known to be caused by PFOA,” she wrote according to documents analyzed in the study.
PFAS has rightfully become a growing concern for public health in the U.S. and around the world. The chemicals are in waterproof cosmetics, non-stick cookware, and fracking sites. And we’re still discovering more and more potential points of contamination over time. A 2022 study found that there are potentially more than 50,000 sites in the U.S. that could be contaminated with forever chemicals. Some states have placed limits on PFAS chemicals in drinking water. This March the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced a proposal to regulate PFOA and PFOS, two very common forms of PFAS. However, there is currently no federal ban on the chemical.
Some companies have even taken it upon themselves to phase out the chemicals in their products. In 2022, 3M said it would stop producing forever chemicals by 2026, and earlier this year, retailer REI said it would ban all PFAS from its clothing and cookware by 2024. But the chemicals have been out there for decades, and so the exposure risk still exists.
Woodruff thinks that new chemicals, especially those used in everyday household items, should be heavily regulated and tested before their use. [The government] should definitely have all the science in place first before releasing anything,” Woodruff said.
And as more lawsuits are filed against companies like 3M and DuPont for PFAS contamination, Woodruff hopes that the analysis and timeline provided in the paper are used as a guide.
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