In a shocking revelation reminiscent of the tobacco industry’s playbook, UC San Francisco (UCSF) researchers have exposed the deliberate efforts by chemical manufacturers to suppress information on the health hazards associated with PFAS (Per-andPoly Fluoro Alkyl Substances). Analyzing previously undisclosed industry documents, a new paper published in the prestigious Annals of Global Health reveals a decades-long campaign to conceal the dangers of these widely used chemicals, known as “forever chemicals” due to their resistance to environmental breakdown.
PFAS compounds are pervasive in clothing, household products, and food, posing significant risks to human health and the environment. However, the chemical industry, led by major manufacturers DuPont and 3M, chose to prioritize profits over public safety. The recently analyzed documents, dating from 1961 to 2006, shed light on the tactics employed by the industry to suppress awareness of PFAS toxicity, ultimately delaying necessary regulations.
Lead author Nadia Gaber, MD, PhD, who conducted the research as a fellow at the UCSF Program on Reproductive Health and the Environment, emphasizes the importance of these findings in shaping policy and advocating for a precautionary approach to chemical regulation. The study marks the first time PFAS industry documents have been scrutinized using methods designed to expose tactics similar to those employed by the tobacco industry.
The documents, initially brought to light through a lawsuit filed by attorney Robert Bilott, highlight the industry’s decades-long knowledge of the adverse effects of PFAS exposure. The chemical giants intentionally withheld vital information from the public, regulators, and even their own employees. “Having access to these documents allows us to see what the manufacturers knew and when, but also how polluting industries keep critical public health information private,” explains Gaber.
Despite possessing internal studies indicating the toxicity of PFAS, the industry kept the risks hidden for over 50 years, failing to report their findings as required by law. In a particularly damning revelation, DuPont had evidence of PFAS toxicity from animal and occupational studies but deliberately kept these studies confidential and even expressed a desire to destroy certain documents. The industry’s suppression of vital information endangered the health of workers and the public at large.
The paper meticulously details a timeline that exposes the vast disparity between industry knowledge and public awareness. It uncovers the strategies deployed by the chemical industry to suppress information and safeguard their harmful products. Shocking examples include:
- Cases of enlarged organs: As early as 1961, Teflon’s Chief of Toxicology discovered that Teflon materials had the ability to enlarge the livers of rats at low doses, emphasizing the need for extreme caution and avoiding skin contact.
- Animal deaths after ingestion: A 1970 internal memo revealed that the DuPont-funded Haskell Laboratory found C8 (a type of PFAS) to be highly toxic when inhaled and moderately toxic when ingested. In a 1979 private report, Haskell labs reported that dogs exposed to a single dose of PFOA (another PFAS compound) died within two days.
- Birth defects in employees’ children: In 1980, it came to light that two pregnant employees who had worked in C8 manufacturing gave birth to children with birth defects. Shockingly, DuPont did not disclose this discovery or inform its employees. An internal memo from the following year claimed there was no evidence linking C-8 to birth defects.
Even with mounting evidence of the dangers of PFAS, DuPont reassured its employees in 1980 that C8 had lower toxicity than table salt. In a
1991 press release addressing reports of PFAS groundwater contamination near their manufacturing plants, DuPont claimed that C-8 had no known toxic effects on humans.
As lawsuits in 1998 and 2002 brought increased media attention to PFAS contamination, DuPont contacted the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in a desperate bid to protect its Teflon brand. In an email, they requested the EPA to quickly declare Teflon products safe and assert that there were no known human health effects caused by PFOA.
The EPA eventually fined DuPont in 2004 for withholding information on PFOA, resulting in a $16.45 million settlement. However, this penalty was a mere fraction of DuPont’s massive annual revenues derived from PFAS compounds. The case underscores the failures in the current regulatory framework for harmful chemicals in the United States.
As nations worldwide take legal and legislative action to curb PFAS production, the comprehensive timeline of evidence presented in this paper serves as a crucial resource. Its revelations expose the gravity of the situation and emphasize the need for significant changes in chemical regulation policies. By shining a light on the dark secrets of PFAS, this research aims to protect public health and promote a proactive approach to safeguarding against harmful chemicals.
In the quest for a safer and healthier future, it is imperative that society learns from the past and holds industries accountable for their actions. The PFAS saga serves as a stark reminder of the perils of prioritizing profits over people, and a call to reevaluate the regulatory systems in place to prevent history from repeating itself.