Like tobacco and Big Oil, secret docs show chemical companies knew PFAS dangers

"The industry used several strategies that have been shown common to tobacco, pharmaceutical, and other industries to influence science and regulation—most notably, suppressing unfavorable research and distorting public discourse."

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SOURCECommon Dreams

An analysis of previously secret documents published Wednesday sheds new light on how chemical corporations aped Big Tobacco by conspiring to conceal the extreme toxicity of a class of synthetic compounds contaminating the Earth’s air, water, soil, plants, and animals—including most of the world’s people.

Commonly called “forever chemicals” because they do not biodegrade and accumulate in the human body, per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS)—which include PFOS, PFOA, and GenX—have myriad uses, from nonstick cookware to waterproof clothing to firefighting foam. According to the U.S. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, PFAS is linked to cancers of the kidneys and testicles, low infant weight, suppressed immune function, and other adverse health effects. It is found in the blood of 99% of Americans and a similar percentage of people around the world.

“The industry used several strategies that have been shown common to tobacco, pharmaceutical, and other industries to influence science and regulation—most notably, suppressing unfavorable research and distorting public discourse.”

But that wasn’t known until recently. Scientists and public health officials were some of the first to understand the dangers of PFAS, and in recent years, exposés like Stephanie Soechtig and Jeremy Seifer’s 2018 documentary feature The Devil We Know and a 2022 episode of HBO‘s “Last Week Tonight” in which host John Oliver called PFAS “the devil’s piss” raised awareness of the “forever chemicals.” In 2018, Congress held its first hearing, and around that time it emerged that chemical giants DuPont and 3M understood—and covered up—the dangers of PFAS.

The Devil They Knew: Chemical Documents Analysis of Industry Influence on PFAS Science—a new paper published in the peer-reviewed journal Annals of Global Health—enriches understanding of the chemical industry’s role in concealing the dangers of PFAS. It includes documents like a 1970 DuPont internal memo stating the PFOA C8—used to make the nonstick surface Teflon—is “highly toxic when inhaled and moderately toxic when injected.”

“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,” Tracey J. Woodruff—who wrote the paper with Nadia Gaber and Lisa Bero—told Phys.org.

One 1979 DuPont report describes a range of highly toxic effects from testing PFAS on animals, including two beagles who died after being administered a single 450 mg dose of ammonium perfluorooctanoate, and rats that suffered enlarged livers and eye ulcers.

Another document, from 1980, shows DuPont and 3M learned that two out of eight pregnant employees who worked making C8 had babies with birth defects, but then lied the following year in a memo declaring that “we know of no evidence of birth defects” caused by C8.

“Further, the industry used several strategies that have been shown common to tobacco, pharmaceutical, and other industries to influence science and regulation—most notably, suppressing unfavorable research and distorting public discourse,” the paper states.

The paper’s authors did not find “evidence in this archive of funding favorable research or targeted dissemination of those results.”

Among the paper’s key findings:

  • The chemical industry, using industry documents, delayed disclosing the harms of PFAS, costing billions of dollars in health and environmental damages globally;
  • Many countries are pursuing legal and legislative action to curb PFAS production that may be aided by the timeline of evidence presented here;
  • The production of chemical toxicity research should be in the best interest of protecting the public’s health, including designing the research question, funding studies, and publishing favorable and unfavorable findings;
  • Legal settlements against chemical manufacturers should include document disclosure in order to ensure transparency and accountability for industries and their products; and
  • Public health and environmental policymakers should move towards precautionary principles of chemical regulation.

“The lack of transparency in industry-driven research on industrial chemicals has significant legal, political, and public health consequences,” the paper’s authors concluded. “Industry strategies to suppress scientific research findings or early warnings about the hazards of industrial chemicals can be analyzed and exposed, in order to guide prevention.”

Recent years have seen an exponential proliferation of PFAS-related litigation, sometimes resulting in verdicts like the $40 million awarded by an Ohio jury to a man who claimed exposure to PFOA in his drinking water gave him testicular cancer twice.

In recent days, states including Arizona, Maryland, Rhode Island, and Washington have sued companies that manufacture PFAS.

“These companies have known for decades that so-called ‘forever chemicals’ would contaminate water supplies for generations to come but chose to sell their products anyway,” said Arizona Attorney General Kris Mayes, a Democrat. “The failure by these polluters to inform the state about the risks associated with these chemicals has harmed our environment and the health of Arizonans—and they must be held accountable.”

Last week, Common Dreams reported that Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz, also a Democrat, signed into law the nation’s broadest PFAS ban. The legislation gradually phases out most PFAS use until “forever chemicals” will be prohibited in all products not essential for public health by 2032.

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