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Two children drinking water outdoors. An estimated 110 million Americans are potentially exposed to PFAS through drinking water. (Photo: Shutterstock)

Two children drink water outdoors. (Photo: Shutterstock)

Study Ties 'Forever Chemicals' Exposure to Billions in US Health Costs

One co-author said the findings show the cost of cleaning up and replacing PFAS "is ultimately justified when considering the tremendous economic and medical risks of allowing them to persist in the environment."

Jessica Corbett

Research published Tuesday warns that "forever chemicals" used in everyday products could lead to tens of billions of dollars in medical costs in the United States, globally infamous for its for-profit healthcare system.

"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."

The new study—published online in the journal Exposure and Health—focuses on per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), a class of over 4,700 manufactured chemicals that persist in the human body and environment for long periods.

Because of their use in everything from firefighting foam to food packaging to furniture, the substances have been found in drinking water, soil, and people.

The researchers, led by Vladislav Obsekov of the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, calculated how many Americans were likely exposed to PFAS in 2018 using blood samples from the U.S. National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, then examined studies from the past decade of diseases tied to the chemicals.

PFAS have been connected to various health issues, including multiple types of cancer, childhood obesity, and damage to immune and reproductive systems. The study estimates the economic burden of 13 medical conditions that may result from daily PFAS exposure.

"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," said study co-author Linda G. Kahn, an assistant professor at New York University (NYU) Langone Health, in a statement.

The researchers determined that 13 conditions potentially resulting from PFAS exposure could cost Americans $5.5 billion to $63 billion over the lifetime of the current population. Among the five conditions with the strongest connections to the chemicals, the biggest contributors to the economic toll were childhood obesity, followed by hypothyroidism in women.

Dr. Leonardo Trasande, another co-author and NYU Langone professor, said that "our results strongly support the recent decision by the Environmental Protection Agency to lower the safe allowable level of these substances in water."

The federal agency last month took what green groups called "baby steps" on drinking water contamination by common PFAS, issuing four health advisories: two lowering the levels for PFOA and PFOS and two establishing new guidance for GenX and PFBS.

Consumer Reports senior staff scientist Michael Hansen said at the time that the EPA's move "is a major victory for science and represents an important first step to ensure everyone has access to safe drinking water," but also called on the agency "to adopt legally binding standards."

Alongside the new advisories in June, EPA Administrator Michael Regan announced a new grant program to invest $1 billion to reduce PFAS and other contaminants 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," Trasande said Tuesday, adding that his research team now plans to study the long-term risks of PFAS.

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