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Highly Fluorinated Chemicals Found in All Body Organs Tested - Supposedly “Safer” Substitute Compounds Found at Highest Levels

April 4, 2017

BERKELEY, CA,  April 4, 2017 – Researchers from the University of Alabama at Birmingham and the University of Notre Dame report in a paper (link) published online today in Environmental Science and Technology Letters that, using a new radiolabeling technique, they found that highly fluorinated chemicals accumulate in body organs and tissues. The scientists found these potentially toxic chemicals in the liver, stomach, leg bone, lungs, kidney, heart, skin, muscle, brain and other organs of mice after injection of the labeled chemicals.

This finding is of concern as exposure to the most studied highly fluorinated chemical has been linked to a wide range of human health problems. These include kidney and testicular cancer, elevated cholesterol, thyroid problems, pregnancy-induced hypertension, and ulcerative colitis in adults as well as adverse developmental effects and decreased immune response to vaccines in children.

In recent related studies, highly fluorinated chemicals have been found to have contaminated the drinking water of more than six million U.S. residents at levels above a recent health advisory level set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and were found in about one-third of fast food packaging samples tested.

Highly fluorinated chemicals—also known as PFASs or PFCs—are used to give water-repellant, stain-resistant, and non-stick properties to consumer products such as carpets, outdoor gear, clothing, cosmetics, cookware, and food packaging. “We should ask whether we really need fluorinated materials in products with human exposure,” said Dr. Arlene Blum of UC Berkeley and the Green Science Policy Institute, a co-author of the above studies on the chemicals in drinking water and food packaging. “Given their potential for harm, we must question if the convenience of water and grease resistance is worth risking our health.”

Some PFASs, known as “long-chain” and used for decades, were recently phased out in the U.S. due to health concerns. These harmful chemicals have been replaced by similar “short-chain” PFASs that share many characteristics of the long-chains, but are less well studied.  The chemical industry, in their rebuttals to the Madrid Statement and elsewhere, claims that short chain PFASs “are not expected to harm human health or the environment.”  The primary reason given for their claim that short-chains are “safer” is that they are eliminated more rapidly from the human body. However, this research found the shorter chain alternatives in all body organs studied, and often at higher concentrations than the longer-chain chemicals.

In the study, three types of highly fluorinated chemicals, two short-chain compounds and one long-chain, were radiolabeled and injected into mice.  By following the radiolabels with a standard nuclear medicine technique, the researchers were able to identify which of the three chemicals was found in which organ and at what level. The results of the research were surprising, and have potential human health implications far beyond this initial study.

All three types of PFAS compounds were found to bind to blood and to be transported to every mouse organ studied. What was unexpected was that the “safer” short chain alternatives were found in higher levels in about half of the organs studied than the phased-out long chains. This paper supports previous work from a Spanish research group that found short-chain PFAS chemicals in a variety of organs in human autopsy tissue.

Dr. Graham Peaslee, a co-author on this study from the University of Notre Dame said, “These results call into question the safety of these alternative shorter-chain PFAS compounds being used in consumer goods, and more extensive studies will need to be performed. Thanks to the development of this rapid method, scientists will be able to focus on exactly which metabolic systems are affected by these chemicals of concern.”

“For the first time, we have a PFAS tracer that we have tagged to see where it goes in mice,” explained Dr. Suzanne Lapi of the University of Alabama-Birmingham and an author of the study. “This is a tremendous first step,” she continued, “and it underscores the need for further studies to investigate different PFAS compounds.”

For the many millions of Americans who have been drinking water polluted with the chemicals and exposed to food packaging and other products containing them, questions about their health effects remain. Indeed, the chemicals are found in the bodies of 98% of Americans. Concerns about these chemicals are stated eloquently by Andrea Amico, an impacted community member“These chemicals will stay in my children’s bodies for years. While I can’t change their past exposure, I hope that these harmful substances are not replaced by similar chemicals about which we know less.”

Available for Interviews:

  • Suzanne Lapi, Ph.D., and Jennifer Burkemper, Ph.D.,  U. of Alabama-Birmingham, (Media contact: Tyler Greer, 205-934-2041, [email protected])
  • Graham Peaslee, Ph.D., University of Notre Dame, (574) 631-7554, [email protected]
  • Andrea Amico, Community Leader, Pease Air Base, N. H.,  (978) 549-9122  [email protected]
  • Courtney Carignan, Ph.D., Harvard University [email protected]
  • Tom Bruton, M.S.E., UC Berkeley & GSP , (773) 628-4452, [email protected]
  • Arlene Blum, Ph.D., UC Berkeley & GSP , (773) 628-4452, [email protected]

For more information:

American Public Health Association policy statement here

C8 Science Panel with probable links to human disease here