Researchers Discover PFAS Chemicals Affect Human Immune System
The Times article tells the story of Pál Weihe, who was born in the Faroe Islands and lived on the islands for the majority of his life. Weihe is the chief physician of the Faroe Islands’ Department of Occupational Medicine and Public Health, as well as the Faorese Medical Association’s chairman.
In 1986, Weihe, along with Danish environmental medicine professor Philippe Grandjean, started a study involving over 1,000 pregnant Faroese women as well as their newborns. The study investigated how mercury in seafood impacted fetal development and child development. Residents of the islands had a tradition of slaughtering pilot whales and harvesting their blubber and meat. The meat is laden with mercury. The researchers discovered that when fetuses are exposed to even low levels of mercury in the womb, it can lead to language, memory and learning deficits after the children are born, as well as lower IQ’s. The researchers found In the 1990s, Weihe started warning that children, pregnant women and any women who may become pregnant shouldn’t eat the whale meat. Women heeded the advice of Weihe and mercury levels in the blood Faroese women and children fell.
In 2009, Weihe and Grandjean were investigating how other chemical pollutants had an affect on childrens’ responses to vaccines. Grandjean, reading a journal about toxicology, noticed a study which found that the immune systems of rats were damaged by PFAS chemicals. Weihe and Grandjean then added PFAS chemicals to their ongoing study about childrens’ responses to vaccines. The two had collected blood and hair samples from mothers and children over the last 23 years, saving the samples, so they could now go back and test those samples for PFAS chemicals.
Around this same time, the possible health effects of PFAS chemicals were starting to gain attention in America. Lawsuits which were filed starting in the late 1990s involved a DuPont factory around Parkersburg, West Virginia which used the PFAS chemical PFOA in order to produce Teflon. DuPont had dumped waste for decades which contained PFOA into the Ohio River and onto its property, polluting the drinking water and air of tens and thousands of citizens. DuPont then funded a study, to figure out if citizens were hurt by the PFAS chemicals. The study concluded that there were probable links between PFOA and kidney cancer, testicular cancer, pregnancy-induced hypertension, thyroid disease, ulcerative colitis and high cholesterol.
Weihe and Grandjean published their study in 2012. The study found that PFAS chemicals caused a reduction in how many antibodies children maintained following diphtheria and tetanus vaccinations. The researchers found that for every doubling of the PFAS levels in mothers’ blood, the antibody concentration in their children ended up being 40 percent lower. For every doubling of PFAS levels in the blood of the children, their concentration of antibodies ended up being 50 percent lower. The results alarmed Weihe so much that he called childrens’ parents to offer the children boosters.
However, while the residents of Ohio Valley were exposed to high levels of PFAS from the DuPont factory, the Faroese were not. The levels of PFAS chemicals in their blood was about the same as that in average U.S. or European citizens.
Other health effects which PFAS chemicals may be linked to include neurobehavioral issues, infertility, asthma, liver disease, immune dysfunction, metabolism dysfunction, and endocrine disruption.
The History Of PFAS Chemicals And Their Health Effects
The first PFAS chemical was accidentally discovered by a researcher for DuPont in the 1930s who was searching for refrigerants which were more stable and could be used during the process of enriching uranium during the Manhattan Project. Many PFAS chemicals were then discovered to stabilize explosives, make great lubricants and protective coatings for electronics, and keep their properties when exposed to extreme heat. The chemicals were then incorporated into nonstick, stain-resistant and waterproof products for consumers. The chemicals are also used in the renewable energy industry, the aerospace industry, cellular networks and medical devices.
PFAS chemicals are very durable because of their structure. While thousands of different PFAS chemicals exist, they all contain carbon atoms which are bonded to atoms of fluorine. The carbon-fluorine bond is one of the strongest bonds in nature, and many PFAS chemicals have chemicals bonds which are so strong that scientists aren’t sure how long they can last before breaking down in nature. They may be able to persist for thousands of years. Because of this, the chemicals are commonly called “forever chemicals.”
3M and DuPont, two manufacturers of the chemicals, started studying PFAS chemicals’ possible health effects in the name of occupational safety. Scientists first thought the chemicals wouldn’t have interactions with biological systems because they were inert. However, experiments by the companies quickly put that idea to rest. By 1961, DuPont was already aware that rat and rabbit livers became enlarged after being exposed to PFAS.
3M and DuPont saw alarming signals in animal studies in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Monkeys who were exposed to large amounts of PFAS died. The companies also saw alarming signals in their employees. In 1979, it was observed by DuPont that employees who contacted PFAS chemicals had higher abnormal liver function rates. In 1981, researchers with 3M told researchers with DuPont that rats which were pregnant and were exposed to the chemicals ended up with pups that had eye irregularities. That same year, a DuPont employee who worked at a Teflon plant birthed a child who had a serrated eyelid, a keyhole pupil and a single nostril. In 1984, DuPont found PFAS in Little Hocking, Ohio’s tap water but didn’t tell the water system. In 1989, 3M found that its workers who ended up being exposed to PFAS chemicals saw higher cancer rates.
PFAS Chemicals Are Everywhere
In 1998, the EPA was told by 3M that 3M tried, but failed, to find members of the public who did NOT have the PFAS chemical PFOS in their blood. The company announced two years later it planned to stop making the chemical.
In 1999, the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey started testing for PFAS in the blood of people and confirmed the observations made by 3M: almost everyone had PFAS in their blood.
The revelation was not met by much action by federal policymakers and health officials. To this date, the production of PFAS chemicals is mostly unregulated. Over 12,000 of the chemicals exist, and few of them have been examined for possible health effects. According to the Environmental Working Group, there are over 41,000 locations in America where PFAS chemicals are possibly being released, used or made, and over 2,800 locations in American have been confirmed as contaminated with PFAS chemicals.
While PFAS chemicals are able to be removed from our tap water, tape water usually only accounts for around 20 percent of the average person’s exposure to PFAS – we also absorb them through our skin, inhale them and eat them. PFAS chemicals have been found in:
- Nail polish
- Nonstick cookware
- Dental floss
- Pizza boxes
- Fast food wrappers
- Yoga pants
- Microwave popcorn bags
- Sanitary pads
- Menstrual cups
- Children’s pajamas
- Artificial turf
- Vinyl flooring
- Protective equipment in use by medical personnel and firefighters
- Firefighting foam
- Household cleaning products
- Antarctic snow
- Organic eggs
- Freshwater fish
- Tap water
A study regarding how much PFAS is found in American freshwater fish discovered that a single serving of the fish could contain as much PFAS as you’d ingest by drinking water contaminated with the chemicals for an entire month. The USGS recently found that PFAS chemicals were found in 45 percent of tap water samples around America.
The National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine issued a report last year which essentially advised that most of the United States population should watch their cholesterol closely and get checked during pregnancy for hypertensive disorders because of exposure to PFAS chemicals.
PFAS And Our Health
It’s hard to imagine how a single type of chemical can cause as many health problems as have been linked with PFAS chemicals. Figuring how how the chemicals affect our biology is difficult since there’s so many different variations of PFAS. Scientists decently understand how early PFAS like PFOA and PFOS behave on the cellular level, but there’s only limited data available regarding newer PFAS chemicals.
We do know that when some PFAS chemicals enter our bodies, they end up binding to our blood proteins. Researchers at Stanford knew this in 1956. Once the chemicals bind to our blood proteins, our blood delivers the chemicals to organs and tissues. Some PFAS chemicals look to our cells like fatty acids which are beneficial to our health, so our cells bring them into their outer membrane.
Some PFAS chemicals travel to our liver, where they accumulate. A 2022 study found that PFAS exposure is linked with liver cancer and nonalcoholic fatty liver disease.
PFAS have been demonstrated to create oxidative stress in cells, which can cause conditions like cardiovascular disease, diabetes and cancer. PFAS are also known to bind with 14 or more receptors in our bodies, influencing how cells suppress or express genes which govern how the cells perform important functions like storing fat and producing energy. When these cells don’t work correctly, they can cause organs to glitch, causing a variety of health issues.
PFAS chemicals appear to heavily affect the liver, which produces cholesterol, balances blood sugar, detoxifies blood, regulates our immune and metabolic systems, and regulates our testosterone and estrogen levels. This may be why the chemicals have been linked with testicular cancer.
Weihe and Grandjean also suspect that the chemicals might disrupt our endocrine system, wondering if the chemicals could lead to obesity by disrupting our metabolisms.
In March, a study found that exposure to PFAS chemicals in the womb was linked with lower birth weight. Low birth weight is linked with infant mortality, developmental problems and, later in life, chronic conditions such as diabetes, cancer and heart disease. The offspring of mice which are exposed to the chemicals are more likely to end up with liver damage and metabolic problems in adulthood.
There exists evidence we should be concerned that PFAS chemicals may cause or increase the risk of autism and ADHD, according to Alan Ducatman of West Virginia University’s School of Public Health.
Leaders in the chemical industry insist that each individual PFAS chemical should be evaluated separately in terms of human health effects. However, in 2020, 16 researchers published a rationale for regulatory management of PFAS chemicals as a class of chemicals. According to researcher Linda Birnbaum, all PFAS chemicals are problematic – they all do the same things when tested. North Carolina State University’s Scott Belcher said he hasn’t seen a single PFAS chemical that, when tested, was not toxic.
Call Us Today If PFAS Chemicals Made You Sick
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