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Exposure to PFAS Doubles Cancer Risk in Women

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Far-ranging consequences and control efforts

Ann Arbor, MI A study, published on September 18 in the Journal of Exposure Science & Environmental Epidemiology suggests that exposure to perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl (PFAS and PFOA) compounds greatly increases the risk of melanoma, ovarian and uterine cancers in women. The precise mechanism is unknown, but PFAS exposure appears to affect the immune and hormonal systems, liver function and other bodily processes.

PFAS-related litigation involves more than 4,000 cases, filed in federal courts across the country. These have been largely consolidated before a federal judge in Charleston, S.C., as multidistrict litigation because the lawsuits involve a common set of facts and allegations.

Meanwhile, some of the most significant efforts to restrict the use of PFAS seem to be occurring at the state level. These may be an effective way to protect women’s health.

Early signs of racial disparity in risk

Compounds called phenols, sometimes found in cleaning products, and PFAS were linked to different kinds of cancer in white women and women of color, according to the study. PFAS were linked to ovarian and uterine cancers mainly in white women, and phenols were linked more to breast cancer in non-white women. Both are found in hundreds of daily consumer products. The researchers stated that the differences may be linked to racial disparities in exposure to these chemicals.

Many find it daunting to research which chemicals are in which products in their price range. Advocates argue that the onus should not have to be on consumers.

“Forever chemicals”

PFAS are a large group of synthetic chemicals that have been used in a wide range of industrial and consumer products for roughly 70 years. These substances are valued for their water- and grease-resistant properties. They are common in products like non-stick cookware, water-repellent fabrics, and firefighting foam. Particularly high concentrations of PFAS water contamination have often been found in communities surrounding military bases, where firefighting foam was in heavy use.

The pervasive use of PFAS has led to widespread environmental contamination, earning them the ominous name "forever chemicals." These chemicals do not break down easily and have been found in the soil, water, and air, affecting communities near manufacturing facilities and military bases. The bioaccumulation of PFAS in wildlife and humans has raised concerns about their potential health risks. One report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found PFAS in the blood of 97 percent of Americans. Nearly half the tap water in the United States is reportedly contaminated with PFAS.

Environmental law and policy concerns

The consequences of PFAS contamination go beyond individual health concerns. The chemicals have far-reaching environmental implications. They persist in the environment, affecting aquatic ecosystems, wildlife, soil and agricultural products. The potential for long-term damage to ecosystems and water sources is significant.

This concern came to the forefront recently in a spate of environmental lawsuits brought by municipal water systems. The District Court in South Carolina has preliminarily approved a $12.5 billion settlement proposed by 3M Company, one of the manufacturers of PFAS. The settlement leaves unaddressed the cost of the future clean-up efforts that the utilities may be required to undertake.

Legislative and regulatory response

Efforts to address the PFAS issue have gained momentum in recent years. To date, the federal focus has been on Environmental Protection Agency regulations. State lawmakers are also considering legislation to regulate the toxic chemicals and protect public health and the environment.

In the spring of 2023, the EPA proposed new national regulations that would provide a limit of 4 parts per trillion (ppt) on what could be considered a “safe” level of PFAS contamination in drinking water. This is currently the lowest level at which PFAS contamination can be reliably measured. The regulations would cover public water utilities, but not private wells, which serve roughly 23 million households nationally. The EPA intends to finalize these national regulations by the end of 2023. Implementation will likely be delayed for months after they are finalized.

Further, the regulations cover only six out of 14,000 toxic PFAS compounds. If and when the EPA determines safe levels for any of the remaining unregulated chemicals, municipal water authorities will have to test and remediate to meet those new standards. More importantly, the health damage continues. Some suggest that one way to reduce exposures is for the EPA to regulate PFAS as a class of chemicals, rather than one at a time. At the very least, some believe that regulators should require disclosure of PFAS’s presence in household goods and public water supplies.

Most of the legislative efforts to regulate the use of PFAS seem to be occurring at the state level. So far, 36 states have adopted or are contemplating laws to regulate the use of PFAS or plastic packaging (a major source of PFAS contamination). Their approaches vary – from banning the use these toxic chemicals entirely to requiring disclosure of PFAS content. State efforts may move more quickly than federal ones, but the issue is a national one, not a local one.


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