A new trend in research reflects a growing concern about the health impacts of a commonly used toxic chemical substance called PFAs (per- and polyfluoralkyl substances). The family of chemicals is pervasive in heat and water-resistant technologies– and is now found in soil, drinking water and even in human blood.

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“Essentially everyone has these compounds in our blood,” Linda Birnbaum, director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences told NPR.

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PFAs are valued for their resistant qualities and used in a variety of items, including food wrappers, umbrellas, tents, carpets and firefighting foams. PFAs are also used in important emerging and lifesaving technologies, including pacemakers, defibrillators, low-emission automobiles and solar panels. However, the same qualities that makes them attractive to manufacturers and consumers are also what wreaks havoc in the environment. Nicknamed the “forever chemical” the substances have been found in lakes, rivers and drinking water reserves. Recent research also links the contaminant with serious health concerns.

The first study to link PFAs to human health was conducted in 2005, when researchers discovered a connection between PFA emissions and health problems among communities in West Virginia and Ohio, such as kidney cancer and thyroid disease.

Since then, there has been growing interest and funding among researchers to further explore this critical connection. Another study indicates that prevalence of PFA in the body may make people resistant to vaccines.

No limits: unchecked chemical emissions

The Environmental Protection Agency is responsible for setting limitations on potential toxic chemical use and emissions, but rarely conducts studies on new chemicals until a public health concern has been raised. Currently, there is no U.S. law that prohibits the sale of a new chemicals or mandates preliminary research on health impacts.  Even after health problems have been noticed, studies require long-term analysis to prove linkages and are often too slow to prevent serious consequences.

Although the science of exactly how the toxic chemicals impact human cells is not fully understood, it is clear there is a connection between their abundance in the environment and problematic health symptoms. As a result, some states have decided to develop limits for PFA prevalence in drinking water, opting to seriously consider the warnings from initial studies in order to protect current and future generations.


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