Investigation: this is how the industry hid the health danger of PFAS, the 'eternal chemicals'

A scientific study that has just been published in the United States shows how Large multinationals in the chemical sector have been deliberately hiding for years the serious damage to health caused by some of their products. These are substances included in the PFASa family of chemical compounds ubiquitous in everyday objects (from non-stick pans to waterproof ones) and about whose toxicity scientists warn.

The chemical industry, like tobacco and oil, they were aware of the dangers of the product they were manufacturing, but they decided to hide this information from public knowledge, to avoid losing profits, as revealed by internal documents that have now come to light. Previously secret industry files show that DuPont and 3M, the largest manufacturers of PFAS (also called ‘forever chemicals’ because of their long life), they knew of its adverse effects for at least 21 years before they were finally made public.

The research has been led by Nadia Gaber, from the University of California (USA) and has just been published in Annals of Global Health. “DuPont had evidence of the toxicity of PFAS through internal animal studies that they did not publish and did not report their findings to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as required by TSCA,” the regulation that regulates these substances. All these documents were classified as “confidential” and, in some cases, industry executives “wanted this memo destroyed,” the article’s authors note.

In all kinds of utensils and materials

PFAS (perfluorinated substances) have a wide range of uses, from non-stick pans to waterproof and stain-resistant material, fire-fighting foam and even jet engines.. They are extremely resistant and do not break down, which is why they are known by the nickname of “eternal chemicals”. By not degrading, They can accumulate in the environment and in our body, with dire consequences.

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As the researchers have revealed, these industries blocked the disclosure of the ecological and health consequences of PFAS, and rejected the regulation of these substances. The documents from this study were the first from the chemical industry to be analyzed using the same methods designed to uncover tobacco industry tactics.

These documents cover from 1961 to 2006 and came to light in the wake of a lawsuit filed by attorney Robert Bilott. She was the first person to successfully sue DuPont for PFAS contamination. Bilott delivered the papers to the producers of the documentary The Devil We Knowwho then donated them to the Chemical Industry Document Library at the University of California in San Francisco, where they were analyzed, explains the IFLScience portal.

Proven damage to animals and people

“These documents reveal clear evidence that the chemical industry was aware of the dangers of PFAS and failed to inform the public, regulators and even their own employees of the risks,” said lead author Professor Tracey J. Woodruff, Director of the UCSF Reproduction Program, Health and the Environment (PRHE), and policy adviser to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), in a statement.

In 1961, Teflon’s head of toxicology found that the Teflon material could increase the size of rat livers, even in small doses and that “skin contact should be strictly avoided.” A 1970 internal memo from the DuPont-funded Haskell Laboratory found that C8 (one of thousands of PFASs in existence) is “highly toxic when inhaled and moderately toxic when ingested.” They also found that an especially dangerous PFAS called perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) would kill a dog two days after ingesting it.

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The evidence only got worse: companies DuPont and 3M discovered that two of their employees gave birth to children with birth defects; they were two of the eight pregnant women who had worked in the manufacture of the C8 compound. After an internal investigation, company officials stated: “We have no evidence of birth defects caused by C-8 at DuPont“.

In 1980, managers told their employees that C8 had as low a toxicity as table salt, despite evidence that the exact opposite had been true for a decade. A 1991 press release from DuPont claimed that “C8 has no toxic or harmful health effects in humans at the concentration levels detected.”Pressure on the US Administration

The company also tried to pressure the US EPA to support its claims with an email that claimed: “We need the EPA quickly (first thing tomorrow) to say this: that consumer products sold under the Teflon brand are safe and, to date, PFOA is not known to cause any effects on human health.”

The EPA ended up fining DuPont in 2004 for failing to raise awareness of the dangers of PFOA. The fine of 16.45 million dollars was the largest civil penalty imposed so far in the US in application of its environmental regulations. However, DuPont’s revenue from C8 compound and PFOA in 2005 was $1 billion.

“Having access to these documents allows us to see what manufacturers knew and when, but also how polluting industries are keeping critical public health information hidden,” added first author Nadia Gaber.

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Researchers have found multiple ways to remove chemicals from the environment forever, even with low-cost systems which could easily be applied in many cases.

Reference study:

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