Manufacturers of ‘forever chemicals’ have tried to cover up the dangers they pose for more than 30 years, according to a new report.
Researchers at the University of California, San Francisco, reviewing dozens of company documents, found that executives were first made aware of the health risks in 1961. However, scientists said they only sounded the alarm in the 1990s.
Internal documents revealed that chemical manufacturers DuPont and 3M faced studies warning that chemicals dubbed per- and polyfluorinated substances (PFAS) could cause liver enlargement, poisoning and birth defects in children.
But executives are said to have relied on the evidence and allowed the chemicals to continue to be used in pots and pans, carpets, children’s toys and even period underwear. They are used in paints and fabrics to make items non-stick or waterproof.
Researchers at the University of California, San Francisco reviewed dozens of company documents and found that the risks of PFAS had been covered up for years before the alarm went off. They are used on items such as pots and pans because of their non-stick properties
There is also evidence of PFAS being present in period underwear, although studies warn that it increases the risk of infertility
Studies suggest that more than 97 percent of Americans now have PFAS chemicals circulating in their blood.
But US states are just now aware of the threat with Minnesota will be the first to ban them complete by 2025.
dr Tracey Woodruff, a gynecologist, and others involved in the study compared the delay to the tobacco industry’s response to warnings that smoking can cause cancer.
The companies made the chemicals that were then used by other companies in items like pans and fabrics to make them nonstick and waterproof.
But a single scratch can release millions of these permanently toxic chemicals, which can then be absorbed through the skin and into the blood.
They can then enter cells, where they damage DNA, increasing the risk of cancer, and affect vital organs like the thyroid, impairing metabolism.
In the study published last night in the Annals of Global HealthResearchers combed through documents on PFAS.
These had been obtained by Minnesota-based PFAS inventor 3M and major PFAS manufacturer DuPont, based in Wilmington, Delaware, in a lawsuit brought by Robert Billot that began in 1998.
Eventually, he managed to obtain company records from 1961 to 2006, which were then donated to the UCSF Chemical Industry Documents Library.
The scientists used these documents to create a timeline for when manufacturers became aware of the risks posed by PFAS chemicals.
They then conducted further research to also create a timeline for when alerts were raised among the public.
The results showed that warnings about PFAS chemicals, and specifically the Teflon chemical coating, were first issued in 1961.
The head of toxicology at DuPont found in experiments that rats exposed to low doses of PFAS showed “enlargement of the liver”. They warned that the chemicals should be handled with “extreme caution” and contact with skin should be “strictly avoided”.
Concerns were raised internally again in the 1970s when the DuPont-funded Haskell Laboratorie determined that PFAS was “highly toxic by inhalation and moderately toxic by ingestion”.
Tests on dogs in the same decade showed that animals ingested a single dose of PFAS died up to two days later.
In 1980, DuPont also learned that two out of every eight employees who became pregnant while working in their factories gave birth to babies with birth defects.
However, the company did not announce the results, instead stating the following year: “We are not aware of any evidence of birth defects caused by this.” [PFAS] at DuPont.’
They also assured employees that PFAS was no more toxic than “table salt.”
The scientists’ timeline is shown above. The boxes above the timeline indicate studies that were publicly available at the time of publication, while the boxes below the line were only shared internally within the companies. Blue-bordered boxes indicate studies not conducted by industry, while orange-bordered boxes indicate studies conducted by industry
This is an expanded timeline tracking five of the chemicals’ health effects on humans. These are toxicity (A), liver damage (B), reproductive problems (C), testicular cancer (D), and other cancer risks (E). Industry stocks are shown in orange, non-industry stocks in blue
The graph above shows how many studies on this topic have been published by date
Also in 1991, a press release stated that PFAS “has no known toxic or harmful effects on humans at the levels found”.
This was released in response to a research report earlier this year that found PFAS to be a “probable risk to human health”.
In 1998 and 2002, the manufacturer faced lawsuits over the potential health risks of PFAS, prompting it to release studies of what the industry knew that were not publicly available.
dr Woodruff said, “These documents reveal clear evidence that the chemical industry was aware of the dangers of PFAS and failed to educate the public, regulators and even their own employees about the risks.”
She added, “As many countries take legal and legislative action to curb PFAS production, we hope the timeline of evidence presented in this paper will help them.”
“This timeline reveals serious flaws in the way the US currently regulates harmful chemicals.”
The scientists drew parallels between the actions of the PFAS manufacturers and those of the tobacco companies in the 1950s and 1960s.
In the 1950s, the major British medical study was published warning of a link between cigarette smoking and lung cancer.
Over the next decade, the US surgeon general published a report concluding that smoking does cause lung cancer.
But in response to these findings, the tobacco industry sought to question the findings and downplay the risks.
Some documents suggest that tobacco companies were aware of the risks associated with smoking, but others did not warn, instead discussing strategies to minimize or downplay them.
DuPont has previously denied this NBC News that it concealed the risks posed by PFAS and said it had provided extensive information about the risk to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) over the years.
In 2021, the company agreed to share the $4 billion settlement cost of using “forever chemicals” with other spin-offs.
In 2019, DuPont Chief Operating and Engineering Officer Daryl Roberts called for regulation of two specific types of PFAS.
For its part, 3M announced last year that it would stop using chemicals forever.
“We have already reduced our use of PFAS over the past three years through continued research and development and will continue to develop new solutions for customers,” said a spokesman.
Denise Rutherford, senior vice president of corporate affairs, said in 2019 that the chemicals do not pose a risk to human health at the current level.