They are called "forever chemicals" because they linger in the human body and can contribute to the risk of everything from cancer to childhood obesity.
Now, new research on per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) finds they also exact a huge financial toll, costing the U.S. health system billions every year.
“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 Kahn. She is an assistant professor in the departments of pediatrics and population health at NYU Langone Health, in New York City.
While past research has found impacts of PFAS exposure including low birth weight, this study finds a much broader range of health consequences across the lifespan, Kahn said.
PFAS include 4,700 manmade chemicals used in the production of water- and oil-resistant clothing, electronics, and nonstick cookware. It is believed that people ingest these as their food comes into contact with packaging.
The chemicals have been detected in the blood of millions of people for decades, according to the study authors, and may disrupt hormone function.
For the study, the research team used blood samples obtained from adults and children who participated in the U.S. National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey to determine how many Americans were likely exposed to PFAS chemicals in 2018.
The investigators then analyzed data from dozens of studies in the past decade that explored diseases connected to the substances.
The researchers estimated the national economic cost of the medical bills and lost worker productivity from the top five medical conditions linked to PFAS exposure, using models from earlier investigations.
The team found that childhood obesity was the largest contributor to the overall economic toll of PFAS exposure. It cost about $2.7 billion.
Hypothyroidism in women cost $1.26 billion. With this condition, the thyroid cannot release enough hormones into the bloodstream.
Investigators also included eight other conditions with suspected links to PFAS exposure, including endometriosis, obesity in adults, and pneumonia in children.
After adding in those conditions, total costs soared to $63 billion.
“Our results strongly support the recent decision by the Environmental Protection Agency to lower the safe allowable level of these substances in water,” study senior author Dr. Leonardo Trasande said in an NYU Langone news release. “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.”
The research team next plans to examine the long-term risks of PFAS, Trasande added.
The study authors also plan to estimate the economic burden of other endocrine-disrupting contaminants, such as bisphenols (substances used in many plastics and can linings), fire retardants and pesticides.
The report was published online July 26 in the journal Exposure and Health.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has more on PFAS.
SOURCE: NYU Langone Health, news release, July 25, 2022