Forever chemicals have left dangerous compounds in blood of all participants in US study

PFAS left dangerous blood compounds in nearly all US study participants

The toxic ‘forever chemicals’ can stay in human blood for years, and are linked to cancers, kidney damage and heart disease

Foam from PFAS, or ‘forever chemicals’, gathers at a Michigan dam.
Foam from PFAS, or ‘forever chemicals’, gathers at a Michigan dam. Photograph: Jake May/AP

Tom Perkins, Sat 29 Oct 2022 06.00 EDT

Nearly all participants in a new study looking at exposure to PFAS “forever chemicals” in the US state of North Carolina have multiple dangerous compounds in their blood, and most at levels that researchers say requires medical screening.

The North Carolina State University study, which is among the largest ever conducted, checked about 1,500 blood samples from people living in the Cape Fear River basin over several years. It’s the first study to recommend screening for cancers, kidney damage, heart disease and other health issues linked to the chemicals, using newly developed physicians’ guidelines for PFAS exposure.

In most cases, the PFAS levels were much higher than the national median, and participants were “scared” by the results, said study co-author Jane Hoppin.

“But the key piece to remember is that blood is measuring the past,” she said. “The [physicians’ guidelines] give us some things we can do to protect our health and, as much as possible, reduce the PFAS exposure that we currently have.”

PFAS are a class of about 12,000 compounds typically used to make products resist water, stains and heat. They are linked to a range of serious health problems, and are estimated to be contaminating drinking water for over 200m people nationwide.

In the Cape Fear basin, the pollution is thought to largely stem from a Fayetteville Chemours plant that DuPont operated for decades before 2015. Airports, textile producers and other industries upstream have also discharged PFAS into the river.

The blood study has implications for which polluters are responsible and legally liable for health problems that many public health advocates and residents say stem from PFAS exposure.

Some of the compounds, like those commonly known as Nafion byproduct 2 and PFO4DA, are produced by Chemours. But “legacy” compounds that have largely been phased out of production in the US, like PFOS (perfluorooctanesulfonic acid) and PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid), were also used by other industries near the river. Chemours has previously seized on those points: “The results showed that legacy compounds not associated with Chemours manufacturing were the compounds most prevalent in participants.”

Regulators in Maine identified PFAS contamination in samples taken from sewage sludge

But public health advocates say that’s misleading. Chemours emitted PFOA as recently as 2012, company and state records obtained by the Guardian show, and the chemical can stay in human blood for many years. Moreover, Chemours’ PFOA still contaminates a groundwater plume around the plant, and those chemicals can continue getting in drinking water and residents’ blood.

And though some newer generation Chemours chemicals, like those commonly called GenX, were not detected at high levels in blood serum, some newer PFAS have been found to accumulate in organs, and in some cases, science simply cannot detect them in blood, researchers say.

GenX is also highly toxic at small doses, so even if it does not stay in the body, it is dangerous, Hoppin added. She likened GenX exposure to drinking alcohol – the alcohol is quickly out of one’s body, but it still does damage to organs.

In a statement to the Guardian, Chemours said it reduced its PFAS pollution in the Cape Fear by over 99%: “We continue to operate with transparency and continue to fulfill our commitment to reduce PFAS emissions by 99%.”

However, the levels it once discharged into the river, coupled with other sources, were so high that even with the reduction, PFAS levels in drinking water around the Cape Fear basin still frequently exceed EPA advisory levels. And the 99% reduction only accounts for some PFAS compounds.

“Chemours is going to say what Chemours is going to say, and they’ll try to spin it,” Hoppin said.

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