Researchers found that state and federal public health agencies downplay risks associated with compounds like the ones contaminating the Cape Fear River and wells around a Bladen County chemical plant.
An analysis released Tuesday by the journal Environmental Health showed that the agencies often understated scientific evidence regarding the toxicity of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances. Communication from the agencies also failed to address the needs of people who have been highly exposed to the PFAS compounds, according to a statement released by the journal.
PFAS are sometimes called “forever chemicals” because of their tendency to stay in the body.
The study says some PFAS compounds, such as perfluorooctanoic acid, which is known as PFOA, and perfluorooctane sulfonate, PFOS, have known toxicity levels. Those and other PFAS compounds have been replaced by similar chemicals that have already contaminated water supplies, it says.
“The experience of the Cape Fear River region of North Carolina illustrates how a population historically exposed to well-known PFAS such as PFOA or PFOS may later face water contamination by new or less well-known compounds,” the study says.
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State officials have been investigating a chemical plant near the Cape Fear River since 2017 when the Wilmington StarNews reported that researchers had discovered a PFAS compound known as GenX and similar chemicals in the river.
Residents in Wilmington and other areas downstream from the plant get their drinking water from the river. GenX and other PFAS compounds were later found in more than 5,000 private wells around the plant.
Chemours, which owns the plant, makes GenX there. The compound also is a byproduct of other processes there. The company has taken steps to reduce the amount of GenX going into the river and into the air.
The Environmental Protection Agency released an assessment last year that showed that GenX is more toxic than previously believed. Animal studies found that oral exposure to the chemical can potentially lead to health effects on the livers, kidneys, and the immune system, with a possible association with cancer, according to the assessment.
EPA assessment: GenX more toxic than thought; health effects might include liver, immune system
Chemours officials have said the amount of GenX in the wells around the plant is not harmful.
The journal’s statement said a research team reviewed local, state, and national agency webpages, fact sheets, and other online materials about PFAS. The researchers also reviewed communications by professional societies and non-governmental organizations.
“Overall, they noted a failure to differentiate between the risks faced by highly exposed communities versus the general population, failure to distinguish levels of evidence for different health outcomes, overemphasis on the uncertainty of health harm, and failure to discuss how to reduce exposure and risk of harm,” the statement said.
Much of the material limited discussion of PFAS health risks to equivocal statements about “some studies” that showed certain compounds “may” lead to health effects, according to the statement.
“Community leaders report that health providers predictably read these messages to imply across-the-board low evidence,” it said. “For certain immune, liver, reproductive, and cancer outcomes such as kidney or testicular cancer, most or nearly all studies have found harm from PFAS exposure.”
East Carolina University professor Jamie DeWitt, a co-author of the study, said there is robust experimental and observational evidence that supports a connection between PFAS exposure and adverse outcomes such as responses and liver damage reduced vaccine.
“Agency websites and fact sheets that use weak language like ‘may cause’ and ‘some studies’ across health outcomes are misleading the public,” she said.
The study cites a statement by the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services.
“Whether or not you develop health problems after being exposed to PFAS depends on how much, how often, and for how long you are exposed, as well as which PFAS you are exposed to,” the state agency said, according to the study. “Personal factors including age, lifestyle, and overall health can impact your body’s ability to respond to chemical exposures.”
A state DHHS spokesperson released a statement in response to questions about the study and the citation. The statement included the quote cited in the study and said the potential for health effects in humans from PFAS is still being studied.
“Researchers are working to better understand how exposure to PFAS might affect people’s health – especially how exposure to PFAS in water and food may be harmful,” the statement said.
The statement said that more research is needed, but some studies have shown that for some people certain PFAS may increase the risk of certain types of cancer; affect the immune system; affect growth, learning, and behavior of infants and older children; lower a woman’s chance of getting pregnant; and cause other issues.
“Scientists are actively studying the health effects of PFAS to learn more,” the statement said. “NCDHHS continues to work with various federal and state partners to review all new health and toxicity information about these compounds and shares new information with communities, as it becomes available.”
Alan Ducatman, a physician and professor emeritus at West Virginia University, was lead author of the analysis.
“As a physician who has had to advise many people whose drinking water has been contaminated with PFAS — sometimes for decades — I know only too well the distress and confusion felt by hard-hit communities,” he said in the statement. “Patients and doctors in PFAS-contaminated neighborhoods need accurate information on how to protect their health.”
The study concluded that immediate action should be taken to review and improve official health communications about PFAS.
“Goals of improved communications should be to consider the needs of communities with high exposures to PFAS,” the analysis said. “There is a parallel need for health communications for the much larger group of people with some PFAS exposure, which is almost all of us.”
Local news editor Steve DeVane can be reached at email@example.com.