Doctors should test levels of PFAS in people at high risk, report says

Using a filter on tap water is a key way to limit your PFAS exposure, experts say.

(CNN)Called "forever chemicals" because they fail to break down fully in the environment, perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, better known as PFAS, have been used since the 1950s to make consumer products nonstick, oil- and water-repellent, and resistant to temperature change.

This family of synthetic chemicals has been a topic of public debate for years as scientists and environmental advocates uncover additional evidence that certain PFAS are harmful to human health at increasingly lower levels.
    On Thursday, the prestigious National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine strode into the fray with a 300-plus-page report providing detailed advice for clinicians on how to test, diagnose and treat the millions of Americans who may have been exposed to PFAS.
      "The National Academies are asked to do studies that would be free of the effects of advocacy, special interests, and politics, and are looked at as a trusted neutral body," said Dr. Ned Calonge, an associate professor of epidemiology at the Colorado School of Public Health and chair of the committee that wrote the report.
      The report sets "nanogram" levels of concern and encourages clinicians to conduct blood tests on patients who are worried about exposure or who are at high risk. (A nanogram is equivalent to one billionth of a gram.)
      People in "vulnerable life stages" -- such as during fetal development in pregnancy, early childhood and old age -- are at high risk, the report said. So are firefighters, workers in fluorochemical manufacturing plants and those who live near commercial airports, military bases, landfills, incinerators, wastewater treatment plants and farms where contaminated sewage sludge is used.
        "These chemicals are ubiquitous in the American environment. More than 2,800 communities in the US, including all 50 states and two territories, have documented PFAS contamination," said Calonge, who is also an associate professor of family medicine at the School of Medicine on Colorado University's Anschutz Medical Campus.
        Part of the committee's fact-gathering process was listening to citizens at town halls across the country. Pennsylvanian Hope Grasse, who was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer at age 25 after growing up near a naval base, described how her doctors laughed when she mentioned chemical exposure.
        "They made me feel small; they made me feel stupid and embarrassed even just asking the question," she said at an April 2021 town hall, which was quoted in the report. "Clearly, they didn't have any information about environmental components (of disease)."
        Michigan resident Sandy Wynn-Stelt discovered a landfill had contaminated her home's drinking water, according to the report. Levels were 1,000 times above what the Environmental Protection Agency considered safe, she said. After paying for a blood test out of pocket, she and her doctor found early-stage thyroid cancer.
        "This report is a positive step forward. It's saying very clearly that exposure in a certain range is cause for concern," said toxicologist Linda Birnbaum, former director of the US Health and Human Services National Toxicology Program and National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences.