Exposure to ‘forever chemicals’ costs Americans billions: study

Daily exposure to cancer-linked “forever chemicals” is expected to cost Americans billions of dollars over the current population’s lifetime, a new study has found.

The associated increase in medical bills and decrease in worker productivity could generate economic losses between $5.52 billion and $62.6 billion, according to the study, published in the journal Exposure and Health on Tuesday. 

Forever chemicals, also known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), are linked to a variety of illnesses, such as thyroid disease, testicular cancer and kidney cancer.

“Our findings add to the substantial and still-mounting body of evidence suggesting that exposure to PFAS is harming our health and undermining the economy,” study co-author Linda Kahn, an assistant professor of pediatrics and population health at NYU Langone Health, said in a statement.

Known for their propensity to linger in the human body and in the environment, forever chemicals are most notorious for their presence in industrial discharge and firefighting foam. There are thousands of types of PFAS, many of which are also key ingredients in common household items.

To draw their conclusions, Kahn and her colleagues first determined approximately how many Americans were likely exposed to two types of the chemicals — PFOA and PFOS — in 2018. They did so by using blood samples from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey — a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) program that assesses the nutritional status of American children and adults.

The researchers then analyzed data from dozens of previous studies that explored relationships between specific diseases and exposure to PFAS. From there, they narrowed down their focus to five conditions: low birth weight, childhood obesity, kidney and testicular cancers and hypothyroidism.

Scientists have already demonstrated a “probable link” between PFAS and diagnosed high cholesterol, ulcerative colitis, thyroid disease, testicular cancer, kidney cancer and pregnancy-induced hypertension — the result of a 2012 settlement in West Virginia.

But in the past decade, researchers have conducted a plethora of studies probing possible links to other illnesses, including the three other conditions named by the NYU researchers.

Once the authors narrowed their search down to these five impacts, they said they used models from previous studies to quantify the national economic cost of medical bills and lost worker productivity associated with those conditions.

Their investigation revealed that childhood obesity was the largest contributor to the overall economic toll of PFAS exposure, costing about $2.65 billion.

Hypothyroidism in women, a condition in which the thyroid fails to release sufficient hormones into the bloodstream, cost about $1.26 billion, according to the study.

When expanding the scope of their estimates to include eight other conditions that only have preliminary links to PFAS exposure — such as endometriosis, obesity in adults and pneumonia in children — the researchers estimated that the financial burden could soar as high as $62.6 billion.

“Our results strongly support the recent decision by the Environmental Protection Agency to lower the safe allowable level of these substances in water,” senior author Leonardo Trasande, a professor of children’s environmental health at NYU Langone Health, said in a statement.

Trasande was referring to a recent decision from the agency to tighten its health advisory levels — which are non-enforceable guidelines, rather than standards — for safe concentrations of PFAS in drinking water.

“Based on our estimates, the cost of eradicating contamination and replacing this class of chemical with safer alternatives is ultimately justified when considering the tremendous economic and medical risks of allowing them to persist in the environment,” he added.