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Exposure to "forever chemicals" costs billions in the US

“Forever chemicals” are everywhere and they are here to stay. Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are a class of over 4,700 man-made chemicals that have been around since the 1940s. Manufacturers use PFAS to make products resistant to oil, heat, stains, or water. They are found in everything from electronics and cosmetics to outdoor gear, non-stick pans, heat- and water-resistant clothing and food wrappers. Unfortunately, we probably ingest them when our food contacts wrappings and they are also present in our drinking water and soil. Forever chemicals have been recorded as present in peoples’ blood for decades.  

Known by some as the best and worst chemicals, they are very useful in many different contexts, but do not break down under normal environmental conditions. These substances have also been implicated in certain human health problems. They are believed to disrupt the function of hormones, chemical messengers that influence many of our body systems.

New research, led by researchers at NYU Grossman School of Medicine has now found that these persistent chemicals, used in the production of many household items, may be linked to the incidence of cancer, thyroid disease, and childhood obesity. Previous research has linked PFAS exposure in mothers to low birth weight in their infants, but the current study considered a much broader range of health consequences for people of all ages.

In fact, the study of roughly 5,000 Americans identified 13 medical conditions that may be linked to PFAS exposure. These include infertility, diabetes, and endometriosis, a painful disorder of the uterus. Together, these health conditions generate significant medical bills and reduce worker productivity across a lifetime to create the costs measured by the study, say the study authors.

“Our findings add to the substantial and still-mounting body of evidence suggesting that exposure to PFAS is harming our health and undermining the economy,” said study co-author Dr. Linda Kahn.

For the investigation, the researchers used blood samples obtained in 2018 from adults and children who took part in the US National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. This gave them an idea of how many people were exposed to forever chemicals and the levels of exposure. The researchers then reviewed the data and findings from dozens of studies that have explored diseases connected to PFAS exposure in the past decade. 

Using this information and existing models from earlier investigations, the researchers then estimated the total national economic cost of the medical bills and lost worker productivity that resulted from the five medical conditions that had the strongest links to PFAS exposure. These included low birth weight, childhood obesity, kidney and testicular cancers, and hypothyroidism.

It was, in fact, childhood obesity that contributed most to the overall economic toll of exposure to forever chemicals. The estimated cost of medical bills and lost productivity associated with this condition was about $2.7 billion. Hypothyroidism in women, a condition in which the thyroid cannot release enough hormones into the bloodstream, was the next highest contributor at $1.26 billion.

When the investigators expanded the scope of their economic estimates to include eight other conditions with preliminary links to PFAS exposure, including endometriosis, obesity in adults, and pneumonia in children, the total costs reached as high as $63 billion.

“Our results strongly support the recent decision by the Environmental Protection Agency to lower the safe allowable level of these substances in water,” said study senior author Dr. Leonardo Trasande. “Based on our estimates, the cost of eradicating contamination and replacing this class of chemical with safer alternatives is ultimately justified when considering the tremendous economic and medical risks of allowing them to persist in the environment.”

According to Dr. Trasande, few studies have explored the effects of PFAS exposure over time, despite the extensive research on the health risks. With this in mind, the research team next plans to examine the long-term risks of exposure to forever chemicals. In addition, they plan to estimate the economic burden of other endocrine-disrupting contaminants, such as bisphenols, which are substances used in many plastics and can linings, fire retardants, and pesticides. 

The study is published in the journal Environmental Exposure.

By Alison Bosman, Staff Writer

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