The National Academy of Sciences—a private, non-profit organization—recently issued a report regarding committee findings on the human health effects from exposure to per-fluoroalkyl and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). PFAS are a class of over 12,000 man-made chemicals, commonly used in consumer and industrial products as a surfactant.
PFAS are also known as “forever chemicals” due to their bio-persistence. Due to their chemical structure, PFAS resist degradation over time due to the strength of the bond between their carbon and fluorine atoms. Further, even when their chemical structure is broken, they will re-assemble as PFAS. Largely for this reason, there has been growing concern in the regulatory and scientific community regarding human exposure to PFAS through drinking water and use of consumer products.
The academy’s report focused on seven (7) of the most commonly produced PFAS. The committee found that there was sufficient evidence of an association between PFAS exposure and decreased antibody response in adults and children, dyslipidemia in adults and children, decreased infant and fetal growth, and increased risk of kidney cancer in adults. The committee found only limited or suggestive evidence of an association between PFAS exposure and the following health effects: increased risk of breast cancer in adults, liver enzyme alterations in adults and children, increased risk of pregnancy-induced hypertension, increased risk of testicular cancer in adults, thyroid disease and dysfunction in adults, and increased risk of ulcerative colitis in adults. The committee found insufficient evidence to support any association between PFAS exposure and respiratory conditions, neurological effects, and any cancers other than kidney, breast and testicular cancer.
The committee findings are notable for a few reasons. First, the committee’s finding of a “limited” or weak association between PFAS exposure and certain types of cancer—such as breast cancer, and testicular cancer—undermines the studies on which many current personal injury suits against PFAS manufacturers and suppliers are premised. Second, although the committee found there was “sufficient evidence” of an “association” between PFAS exposure and certain health conditions, it stopped short of stating there was any “causal effect” between PFAS exposure and any adverse health conditions. A “causal effect,” in contrast to an “association,” is demonstrated where exposure to a particular substance shows a statistically significant increase in the number of certain health outcomes, such as cancer, as compared to what would be expected in a non-exposed population. Although PFAS has been widely (and heavily) used in the United States for decades, no scientific organization or study has yet established a “causal link” between PFAS and adverse health outcomes. Despite the absence of a medical consensus as to whether PFAS constitutes a health risk, the National Academy of Science’s report nonetheless recommends that those individuals with suspected high levels of PFAS in their blood due to occupational or environmental exposures undergo testing, which will in turn be used in support of ongoing class action litigation demanding medical monitoring for those with elevated levels of PFAS exposure.