PFAS Politics & Legislation US

Are PFAS The Next Big Industry Scandal?

A class of chemicals that some scientists call the next DDT is just beginning to face scrutiny for its appearance in human food, with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration now developing ways to measure its presence in everything from milk to produce.
  • Agency says it’s reviewing letter, calls PFAS work ‘ongoing’
  • Issue of who knew what, and when, comes as lawsuits mount

The question, though, is whether the controversial chemicals should have been on everyone’s radars decades ago.

A lawyer representing people who say they have the industrial chemicals in their bloodstream is pressing U.S. regulators for information about food contamination detected in a study by 3M Co. — back in 2001.

Rob Bilott of Taft Stettinius & Hollister LLP sent a letter dated June 11 to the FDA, along with a copy of the 3M-commissioned report, asking the agency to address if and when it became aware of the almost two-decade-old study “that confirmed elevated levels of PFAS in the U.S. food supply.”

The FDA told Bloomberg it was reviewing Bilott’s letter. “We’ve been working to measure PFAS concentrations in food, estimating dietary exposure and determining the associated health effects,” the agency said.

It added that it’s also working closely with federal and state partners and consulting peer-reviewed reports “to advance the science of PFAS detection and better understand the potential health risks associated with PFAS exposures.”

The FDA said earlier this week it hasn’t yet seen “any indication that these substances are a human health concern.” Still, it maintains that its understanding of PFAS is still an “emerging science” and that work to understand it is “ongoing.”

3M confirmed the 2001 report and said it was shared with the Environmental Protection Agency “within seven days.”

“This report is one of thousands of documents we have placed in the public domain related to the study of PFAS chemistries,” the company said in an email. “We will continue to engage with members of our communities, elected officials and regulators to share information about these chemistries.”

The issue of who knew what — and when — comes amid growing litigation and regulation over PFAS, a class of thousands of chemicals also sometimes called “forever” chemicals.

PFAS chemicals, many made by 3M, are in products like Scotchgard sprays and coated paper for food packaging. Some types that have been phased out are still in the environment and have been linked to serious health problems.

Bilott’s firm has brought suits against 3M, DowDupont’s spinoff Chemours Co. and other companies over some PFAS in a type of firefighting foam. Over the past few years, high levels have been found in drinking water around airports and air force bases, where the foams were used.

Bilott spoke about the 3M study at a PFAS conference in Boston earlier this week where community activists, government representatives and academics discussed the latest discoveries about how the chemicals get into human blood and their potential impact on health.

The FDA, which has more recently done its own studies examining foods for the chemicals, said it didn’t detect PFAS in the “vast majority of the foods tested.”

What are PFAS?

They are used to make hundreds of everyday products, from stents to firefighting foams, and turn up in the supply chain of the textile, paper and electronics industries.

Per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances or PFAS (“PEE-fas”), previously called PFCs, FCs or fluorocarbons, come in 5,000 or more varieties.

Some have been made since the 1950s by companies like 3M Co. and DuPont (now DowDuPont’s spinoff Chemours Co.).

They’re characterized by bonds between carbon and fluorine that are among the strongest in organic chemistry.

Consumers may be more familiar with the names of two of the most studied forms, PFOS (Perfluorooctanesulfonic acid), once used in Scotchgard; and PFOA (Perfluorooctanoic acid), also sometimes called C-8, once used to make Teflon.

PFAS are also found in high levels in the water of some U.S. communities.

What are they in?

Their consumer-friendly abilities were discovered by accident — in 1938 when a DuPont scientist was experimenting with refrigerants, and in 1952 when a 3M researcher splashed an experimental mixture on shoes, which then became stainproof — giving rise to 3M’s Scotchgard.

Now, they’re in many types of outdoor clothing, camping gear, shoes, textiles, coated papers for fast-food takeout, firefighting foams and surfactants for electronics manufacturing, for a start. Chemours’ Teflon manufacturing also relies on them.

The medical equipment and construction industries depend on them too. Private labs have warned of cross-contamination from PFAS in blue chemical ice packs, sunscreens and Post-It Notes.

Some varieties surprised grocer Whole Foods Market and suppliers of its takeout containers. And because the chemicals also get around on their own, they pop up in polar bears, newborn babies, and kale.

Are they dangerous?

It depends who you ask. A scientific panel that monitored the blood and health of about 70,000 people in West Virginia and Ohio from 2005 to 2013 who lived near a DuPont Teflon plant found a “probable link” between cases of kidney cancer, testicular cancer, thyroid disease, ulcerative colitis, high cholesterol and pre-eclampsia and PFOA.

Animal studies have shown PFOS affects the ability of cells to communicate with each other — potentially hampering the immune system’s ability to destroy viruses and the rogue cells that cause cancer.

In Minnesota, near a 3M plant, there’s been a debate over whether they’re linked to problems like lowered fertility and childhood cancer.


  • New York sets restrictions on state agency purchasing food containers containing perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFASs) or polystyrene Read More.
  • San Francisco will go further by eliminating single-use food containers that contain fluorinated substances, also known as PFAS. Read More
  • PFAS is being voluntarily phased out by some producers, it has not been outlawed, and may continue to be used in products that end up in composting facilities. Read More
  • Researchers of Purdue University in Indiana, US, found that per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), used as oil- and water-repellents in the making of the containers, transform into perfluoroalkyl acids (PFAAs) inside large-scale composters. Read More
  • Food containers that are compostable might be leaching polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) into the environment, detailed a study published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology Letters. Read More


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