Mounting research reveals the danger posed by a group of man-made chemicals developed in the 1930s that are resistant to water, heat, and oil. They’re used in paint, upholstery, cookware, carpeting, packaging, clothing, cosmetics, and more to make products nonstick, stain repellant, and waterproof.
Among the health effects these products are linked to is the startling and little-discussed decline in human fertility.
There are more than 4,700 synthetic chemicals in the group with different properties and applications. In 1967, there was a deadly fire on the Navy aircraft carrier USS Forrestal, killing more than 130 sailors. Not long afterward, manufacturers developed a PFAS firefighting foam mixture that continues to be used to this day in the military and some fire departments.
PFOA and PFOS are the most extensively studied classes of PFAS. Experts estimate that 98 percent of the population has detectable levels of PFOA in their bloodstream. The presence of the chemical has been linked with higher levels of cholesterol and uric acid, which may lead to kidney stones and gout.
“Today, nearly all Americans, including newborn babies, have PFAS in their blood, and up to 110 million people may be drinking PFAS-tainted water. What began as a ‘miracle of modern chemistry’ is now a national crisis.”
PFAS in the Air Correlates With Blood Serum Measurements
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, when humans or animals eat food or drink water contaminated with PFAS, it can be absorbed and build up in the body. Because the chemical doesn’t break down easily, it can also be stored in the body for long periods of time.
The EPA says that people are exposed to PFAS through food packaging that contains the chemicals, equipment used during food processing, as well as contaminated soil and water used to grow the food. However, current research also finds that PFAS may be absorbed from the air you breathe as particles break off from carpeting, clothing, and other products and float in the air with other dust.
The new study, published in Environmental Science and Technology Letters, sought to quantify the amount of PFAS that humans are exposed to, since most people typically spend 90 percent of their time indoors.
The research team from the University of Rhode Island and Green Science Policy Institute tested 20 sites in 17 different locations, including several kindergarten classrooms, an outdoor clothing store, and offices. Tom Bruton, a senior scientist at Green Science and on the research team, said that indoor air pollution is “an underestimated and potentially important source of exposure to PFAS.”
Air Exposure May Be More Dangerous for Children
In the current study, the researchers found that volatile chemicals, specifically fluorotelomer alcohols (FTOH) were widespread. Measurements in a California kindergarten classroom revealed 6:2 FTOH in concentrations from 9 to 600 ng m-3 (nanograms per cubic meter).
Interestingly, the concentrations in the air, carpet, and dust were closely related. This indicated to the researchers that PFAS originating in carpet and dust are the major sources of FTOH in the air. They determined that breathing air contaminated with FTOH was the largest exposure risk in young children.
Research has found a correlation between high levels of PFAS measured in the air in carpeted homes treated with Scotchgard and amounts found in human blood serum. The current researchers theorized that kindergarteners may be exposed to more PFAS chemicals in indoor air pollution than in the food and drink they consume. In April 2020, the Environmental Defense Fund reported on two publications by Food and Drug Administration scientists, in which the scientists confirmed findings that 6:2 FTOH bioaccumulates and the bioaccumulation is greater with lower exposure.
The FDA scientists also found that the toxicity and risk have been significantly underestimated.
Initially, short-chain PFAS chemicals were claimed by the industry as safer alternatives, including 6:2 FTOH. However, as the studies from the FDA showed, 6:2 FTOH is more toxic, in large part because of breakdown products that also bioaccumulate.
The EWG also reports that 6:2 FTOH on its own has demonstrated the ability to harm the immune system, thyroid, and mammary glands as well as has a potential carcinogenic effect in animals.
Chemical Giants Knew of the Dangers in 2009
The most prevalent PFAS found in the current study was 6:2 FTOH, which is found frequently in stain guards, floor waxes, and food packaging. On May 12, The Guardian published an investigative piece that revealed DuPont and Daikin, both chemical giants and producers of PFAS chemicals, knew of the dangers to human health as early as 2009.
However, they hid company studies from the FDA and from the public. The Guardian saw the studies after the Environmental Defense Fund and independent researcher Maricel Maffini obtained them from the companies and the FDA through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request.
They discovered that Daikin had withheld a study finalized in 2009 that showed 6:2 FTOH was toxic to lab animals’ livers and kidneys. DuPont’s company studies were finalized in 2012 but weren’t shared with the FDA or the public. It revealed the chemicals stayed in lab animals much longer than was originally anticipated.
Maffini spoke with a reporter from The Guardian, indicating that if the FDA had been aware of the data, it was unlikely the agency would have approved 6:2 FTOH. But it took the FDA until 2020 to work with manufacturers to voluntarily withdraw 6:2 FTOH from food packaging, also giving manufacturers five years to accomplish the goal.
Documents acquired through the FOIA show that the FDA had been aware of DuPont’s hidden study in 2015.
Independent researcher Erika Schreder, science director for Toxic-Free Future, has called for PFAS to be regulated as a class.
It wasn’t just the manufacturers who had information about 6:2 FTOH. In 2008, DuPont submitted studies that demonstrated lab animals suffered from liver damage, mottled teeth, and kidney failure. Yet, the FDA determined that exposure to humans would be lower. Without any supporting evidence, they decided the short-chain PFASs wouldn’t bioaccumulate.
Tom Neltner, the chemicals policy director with the Environmental Defense Fund, believes that some of the deficiencies inside the FDA’s chemical approval process include an insufficient amount of safety data upfront and no systematic reassessment after the chemicals are on the market.
Although the FDA defended their process, Neltner said the issues with 6:2 FTOH suggest the process is not sufficient. As the FDA has done in the past and continues to do in the current climate, Neltner said, “They’re making grossly inaccurate assumptions that are not defensible.”
Will Sperm Count Reach Zero in 2045?
One of the major concerns with PFAS is its ability to disrupt human hormone function.
If Shanna Swan’s estimates are correct, we may be headed for an unpopulated Earth, and chemicals such as PFAS are the reason; Swan is an environmental and reproductive epidemiologist at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York.
In her book “Count Down,” she describes the devastation to fertility that has been the result of hormone-disrupting chemicals such as PFAS. Swan is on a team of researchers who did a systematic review and meta-analysis of sperm counts from 1973 to 2011.
They discovered there has been a 60 percent sperm count reduction in men living in North America, Australia, Europe, and New Zealand. Using projections from this data, she believes that sperm counts in men across the world will reach zero in or about 2045. In the book, Swan and co-writer Stacey Colino point to chemical exposures that are threatening human fertility.
Swan isn’t the first to find that PFAS chemicals have a significant effect on human reproductive health. One study published in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism in 2019 found that increasing levels were positively correlated with “a reduction of semen quality, testicular volume, penile length, and anogenital distance.”
The scientists concluded that the chemicals have a substantial impact and interfere with hormones, “potentially leading to male infertility.” Falling sperm count is mirrored in the global fertility rate, which fell to 2.4 in 2019 from 5.05 in 1964.
We Drink, Eat, and Breathe Ubiquitous Forever Chemicals
On July 31, 2020, the FDA announced three companies would voluntarily phase out specific short-chain PFAS chemicals used in food packaging. These are found in fast-food wrappers, pizza boxes, and to-go boxes. The announcement followed the FDA literature review that noted 6:2 FTOH persists much longer than had been anticipated.
However, the phase-out might take several years. Once the company stops manufacturing, it can take an additional 18 months to sell out the products that have already been produced. In other words, the manufacturer can take up to 4.5 years to phase the chemicals out of production.
Tap water and bottled water are other sources of PFAS exposure. According to the EWG, while most drinking water gets a passing grade from regulatory agencies, the EPA hasn’t added a new contaminant for regulation in more than 20 years. In July 2019, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts issued an advisory for bottled water from Spring Hill Farm Dairy, which tested positive for PFAS.
In May 2015, 205 scientists from 38 countries signed a consensus statement called the Madrid Statement. Their focus was on PFAS, warning about its potential harmful effects including liver toxicity, adverse neurobehavioral effects, hypothyroidism, and obesity.
Scientists recommend avoiding all products containing PFAS. You may find helpful tips in the EWG’s “Guide to Avoiding PFCS.” In the past, I have also recommended avoiding:
- Pretreated or stain-repellent treatments on clothing, furniture, and carpeting
- Products treated with flame-retardant chemicals, including furniture, carpets, mattresses, and baby items
- Fast food, microwave popcorn, unfiltered tap water and carry out foods
- Nonstick cookware and treated kitchen utensils
- Personal care products containing PTFE or “fluoro” or “perfluoro” ingredients such as Oral-B Glide floss