Researchers from the Keck School of Medicine suggest that these altered processes could lead to a wide range of health conditions later in life.
"Forever chemicals" is a term used to describe a group of compounds known as per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). These substances are called "forever chemicals" because they do not break down easily and can persist in living organisms and the environment for a long time.
As a result of their persistence, investigators have found PFAS in drinking water and food sources across the globe. For example, an estimated 200 million people in the U.S. have drinking water with significantly higher levels of "forever chemicals" than those deemed safe by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
For decades, manufacturers have used PFAS in a variety of consumer and industrial products, including nonstick cookware, waterproof clothing, firefighting foam, and food packaging.
However, studies have linked these compounds to health conditions, including cancer, reproductive and developmental conditions, and immune system dysfunction. Moreover, PFAS can accumulate in the body over time, and even low levels of exposure are associated with health risks.
Recently, a study published on February 22 in Environmental Health Perspectives found more concerns surrounding forever chemicals — specifically involving children and young adults.
To conduct the study, researchers from the Keck School of Medicine of USC used blood samples from 312 children from the Study of Latino Adolescents at Risk (SOLAR) and 137 children from the Southern California Children's Health Study (CHS).
After testing the samples, the team found that all the young participants had a combination of typical PFAS in their blood, including PFHxS, PFOS, PFOA, PFNA, and PFHpS. In addition, more than 98% of the children and young adults had PFDA in their blood.
The team also used a biostatistical method they developed to examine how each PFAS interacted with naturally occurring chemicals in the body.
The scientists discovered that these forever chemicals changed how the body metabolized fats and amino acids. They also found that these compounds disrupted thyroid hormone function in the participants, and this disruption seemed to be caused by a combination of PFAS, not just one type alone.
The team suggests that because these chemicals appear to impact biological factors for growth and metabolism, they could lead to health conditions such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and cancer.
In a news release, study author Lida Chatzi, M.D., suggests, "while current interventions have focused on phasing out the use of individual PFAS, such as PFOS and PFOA, this research shows why the focus should be on reducing exposure to all PFAS chemicals."
Reducing the impact of 'forever chemicals'
Because of the dangers, many governments and organizations around the world are taking steps to restrict or ban the use of PFAS in certain products and manufacturing processes.
For example, on October 18, 2021, the EPA announced the PFAS Strategic Roadmap to address the issue. In this plan, the agency highlighted a new approach to combating "forever chemicals," which includes steps to prevent them from entering the environment.
Companies are also beginning to take action against PFAS. For instance, on February 21, REI Co-op announced the release of new product standards that ban "forever chemicals" from its cookware and clothing lines by the fall of 2024. The new standards require REI suppliers to eliminate PFAS from products sold by the company by that target date. However, REI will give suppliers of heavy-duty clothing until 2026 to comply with the ban.
- Ecotoxicology and Public Health. Population-Wide Exposure to Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances from Drinking Water in the United States.
- Environmental Health Perspectives. Metabolic Signatures of Youth Exposure to Mixtures of Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances: A Multi-Cohort Study.
- Keck School of Medicine. Keck School of Medicine study finds “forever chemicals” disrupt key biological processes.
- EPA. PFAS Strategic Roadmap: EPA's Commitments to Action 2021-2024.
- REI Co-op. REI Co-op Raises Bar for Companies Operating in Outdoor Industry: Releases New Product Standards for its 1,000+ Brand Partners to Advance Social and Environmental Practices.