PFAS linked to infertility, diabetes and billions in economic costs

Researchers at the NYU Grossman School of Medicine have found strong evidence exposure to a common group of household chemicals can be associated with 13 different health conditions. The related economic costs have been estimated at between US$5 billion and $60 billion annually in the United States alone.

First developed in the 1940s, per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) encompass more than 4,700 different chemical molecules. For decades these chemicals were used in a variety of manufacturing contexts, from non-stick cookware and waterproof clothing to carpets and firefighting foams.

Because PFAS chemicals tend to persist in he environment for long periods of time they have anecdotally been dubbed “forever chemicals.” And the sheer pervasiveness of PFAS in 20th century manufacturing led to studies finding traces of the chemicals in the blood of nearly every American.

Leveraging a very large body of pre-existing research, this new study looked to quantify the disease burden of PFAS exposure and estimate the economic cost of this in regards to medical bills and lost worker productivity. The goal of the economic estimate was to offer regulators a way to evaluate the cost-benefit of eliminating PFAS from our environment.

Some of the conditions linked to PFAS in the new study have been previously associated with exposure to the chemicals. These include kidney cancer, hypothyroidism and low birth weight. But the broader systematic analysis conducted in the new study also pointed to more novel PFAS health conditions, such as infertility, endometriosis, bronchitis and type 2 diabetes.

Calculating the associated economic costs of PFAS-related disease and disability in the United States, the most conservative estimate was $5.52 billion annually. At the other end of the spectrum the study found those costs could be as much as $62.6 billion every year.

Senior author Leonardo Trasande said these findings should help lawmakers understand that engaging in decontamination programs to remove PFAS from water supplies would likely be a cheaper option considering these broader economic costs.

“Our results strongly support the recent decision by the Environmental Protection Agency to lower the safe allowable level of these substances in water,” said 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.”

Despite the striking findings, the researchers point out in the study how conservative they were in calculating these estimates. Only data from studies with strong evidence was included in evaluations of disease burden.

“We did not include outcomes reported by the C8 Science Panel that were not confirmed in general population studies, as those associations were identified in a highly exposed population and our focus was on estimating the disease burden and economic costs due to routine exposure,” the study noted. “We also did not include endpoints for which not enough consistent evidence has accumulated, such as prematurity, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, and lowered IQ in children resulting from prenatal exposure, and prostate cancer in adult men.”

Ultimately, the researchers suggest these findings are merely the tip-of-the-iceberg in regards to the impacts of PFAS exposure. Further study is set to better investigate the long-term effects of PFAS exposure, and expand to estimate economic impacts from other known toxic chemicals such as bisphenols.

The study was published in the journal Exposure and Health.

Source: NYU Langone Health

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