Secret industry documents reveal that makers of PFAS 'forever chemicals' covered up their health dangers

According to UC San Francisco (UCSF) researchers' review of previously classified industry data, the chemical industry borrowed a page from the tobacco industry's strategy when it learned about and hid its knowledge of the health risks associated with exposure to PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl compounds).

An article that was just released in Annals of Global Health on May 31, 2023, looks at records from the two biggest PFAS producers, DuPont and 3M. In order to postpone public awareness of PFAS toxicity and, therefore, rules limiting its use, the industry employed several strategies, which are examined in this research. PFAS are extensively used compounds that are very resistant to degrading, earning them the moniker "forever chemicals." They are found in clothes, home goods, and food products. They are currently pervasive in both the environment and individuals.

According to Tracey J. Woodruff, Ph.D., professor and director of the UCSF Program on Reproductive Health and the Environment (PRHE), a former senior scientist and policy advisor at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and senior author of the paper, "These documents reveal clear evidence that the chemical industry knew about the dangers of PFAS and failed to let the public, regulators, and even their own employees know the risks."

Scientists have never before examined these PFAS industry documents using techniques intended to reveal tobacco industry tricks.

For decades, negative impacts have been recognized.

The covert industrial records were uncovered in a lawsuit brought by lawyer Robert Bilott, whose case against DuPont for PFAS pollution made headlines and whose life was depicted in the movie "Dark Waters." Bilott provided the 45-year period of records, from 1961 to 2006, to the filmmakers of the film "The Devil We Know," who then handed them to the UCSF Chemical Industry records Library.

"Having access to these documents allows us to see what the manufacturers knew and when, but also how polluting industries keep critical public health information private," said the study's first author, Nadia Gaber, MD, Ph.D., who oversaw the research as a PRHE fellow and is currently a resident in emergency medicine. This study is crucial to informing policy and advancing the cautious regulatory paradigm for chemicals.

According to the authors of the paper "The Devil They Knew: Chemical Documents Analysis of Industry Influence on PFAS Science," there was little public knowledge of the toxicity of PFAS for the first 50 years of their use, even though "industry had multiple studies showing adverse health effects at least 21 years before they were reported in public findings."

According to the article, DuPont conducted internal animal and occupational research that showed PFAS toxicity, but they neglected to publish those results in the scientific literature and failed to submit their findings to EPA as required by TSCA. All of these documents were labelled as 'confidential,' and in some cases, business leaders express a clear desire to have the memo destroyed.

Suppressing data to safeguard a product

The article charts a chronology of what the chemical industry knew vs what the general public understood and evaluates the tactics employed to hide information or defend their dangerous goods. Examples comprise:

According to a company report from 1961, Teflon's Chief of Toxicology discovered that Teflon materials had "the ability to increase the size of the liver of rats at low doses," and recommended that the chemicals "be handled 'with extreme care' and that 'contact with the skin should be strictly avoided.'"

In a 1970 internal document, Haskell Laboratory, which received funding from DuPont, reported that C8, one of hundreds of PFAS, was "highly toxic when inhaled and moderately toxic when ingested." And Haskell Labs discovered that dogs exposed to a single dosage of PFOA "died two days after ingestion" in a 1979 confidential study for DuPont.

Two of eight pregnant workers who had worked in the C8 manufacture were discovered to have given birth to children with birth abnormalities in 1980, according to DuPont and 3M. The discovery was kept a secret from the public and the staff, and the next year, a document inside the firm claimed, "We know of no evidence of birth defects caused by C-8 at DuPont."

In spite of these and other instances, DuPont informed its staff in 1980 that C8 "has a lower toxicity, like table salt." According to a press statement from 1991, "C-8 has no known toxic or adverse health effects in humans at concentration levels detected," in reference to claims of PFAS groundwater contamination close to one of DuPont's manufacturing sites.

Following lawsuits in 1998 and 2002, media attention to PFAS contamination grew. DuPont wrote to the EPA, "We need EPA to quickly (like first thing tomorrow) say the following: That consumer products sold under the Teflon brand are safe and to date there are no human health effects known to be caused by PFOA."

DuPont was penalized by the EPA in 2004 for failing to disclose their research on PFOA. At the time, the $16.45 million settlement represented the biggest civil penalty collected under American environmental laws. However, it was still a very modest portion of the $1 billion in PFOA and C8 sales that DuPont generated annually in 2005.

"We hope the timeline of evidence presented in this paper will be helpful to many countries as they pursue legal and legislative action to reduce PFAS production," added Woodruff. "This timeline demonstrates significant shortcomings in the way the United States currently regulates hazardous chemicals."