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PFAS and Chronic Diseases: Is There a Connection?

Imagine a group of chemicals so persistent that they are often referred to as “forever chemicals.” These substances, known as Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS), are found in a range of products we use in our daily lives – non-stick, cookware, fast food wrappers, and water-repellent clothing, and even firefighting foams.

While their ability to resist heat, water, and oil has made them incredibly useful, it has also led to widespread environmental contamination and growing concerns about their impact on human health. 

Earlier this year, CNN Health published an article that listed the plastic chemicals that cost the US a burden of $249 billion in healthcare costs. And these weren’t even cumulative costs – they were from 2018 alone. PFAS chemicals were among these chemicals and accounted for $22 billion.

Our goal today is to explore the connection between PFAS toxicity and the chronic diseases that are linked to it. Let’s get started.

Understanding PFAS Toxicity

PFAS, or Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances, are a large group of man-made chemicals that have been in use since the 1940s. TorHoerman Law notes that these synthetic chemicals are present in many consumer and industrial products.

Their unique chemical structure, which includes strong carbon-fluorine bonds, gives them remarkable stability and resistance to degradation. This stability is a double-edged sword. While it makes PFAS useful in various industrial applications, it also means they persist in the environment and in our bodies for an extended period.

The toxicity of PFAS is linked to their ability to interfere with various biological processes. One key mechanism is endocrine disruption, where PFAS can mimic or interfere with hormone function, leading to imbalances that affect growth, reproduction, and metabolism. 

These chemicals can also modulate the immune system, potentially reducing the body’s ability to fight infections and increasing susceptibility to diseases.

Chronic Diseases Linked to PFAS Toxicity

Having grasped the basic concept of how PFAS toxicity works, let’s now take a look at the chronic diseases that are associated with it: 

Cancer

One of the most serious health concerns related to PFAS exposure is its potential link to cancer. Studies have shown that PFAS may increase the risk of certain types of cancer, particularly kidney and testicular cancer. 

These findings have demonstrated that high levels of PFAS can lead to tumor development. The mechanisms are believed to involve the disruption of cellular processes and DNA damage, which can lead to uncontrolled cell growth.

The association between PFAS and cancer has laid the foundation for the ongoing firefighting foam lawsuit. The lawsuit holds the manufacturers of AFFF – a firefighting foam that contains PFAS – responsible for their failure to warn people of its health risks.

Thyroid Disease

Besides contributing to tumor development, PFAS exposure also affects our thyroid gland – which plays a key role in metabolism regulation by producing hormones. 

These substances can bind to thyroid hormone transport proteins, reducing the availability of hormones to tissues throughout our body. This results in disruption of thyroid hormone synthesis, transport, and metabolism.

PFAS can also alter the activity of enzymes involved in thyroid hormone production and conversion, leading to imbalances in thyroxine (T4) and triiodothyronine (T3) levels. 

Such imbalances result in conditions like hypothyroidism, characterized by insufficient hormone levels, or hyperthyroidism, where hormone levels are excessively high.

Liver Damage

It’s no secret that our liver is essential for detoxifying our body, and its impairment can have widespread health implications. 

Once inside our body, PFAS act as endocrine disruptors. They can also mimic fatty acids and activate the same receptors, leading to fat accumulation in the liver in a similar way an unhealthy diet could cause. 

This increases the potential threats of inflammation and non-alcoholic fatty liver disease – which can increase your likelihood of developing liver cancer over time. 

Metabolic Disorders

PFAS toxicity can contribute to metabolic disorders through several interconnected mechanisms that disrupt normal metabolic processes. 

These “forever chemicals” interfere with our body’s endocrine system, which regulates hormones critical for metabolism. 

PFAS can also bind to our hormone receptors, mimicking or blocking the natural hormones that regulate glucose and lipid metabolism. This disruption potentially leads to insulin resistance, a key factor in the development of type 2 diabetes.

Furthermore, epidemiological studies have observed a correlation between PFAS levels in the body and increased prevalence of obesity, suggesting that these chemicals may contribute to weight gain and fat accumulation by altering the balance of energy storage and expenditure. 

Immune System Disorders

Our immune system is another target of PFAS toxicity. Researchers from the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research found that PFAS exposure to human immune cells led to their reduced cell activity.

 This indicates how the forever chemicals can impair our immune health, thereby making us vulnerable to various diseases. 

Children, in particular, are more vulnerable to these effects, with their immune system still in its critical period of growth. Their higher exposure relative to body weight also plays a key role in amplifying the effects of PFAS toxicity on their health. 

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

How do PFAS chemicals threaten our environment? 

Since PFAS are resistant to degradation, they persist in soil and water for long periods. Making their way into the tissues of wildlife over time. This results in the biomagnification and bioaccumulation of PFAS’S in the food chain. Ultimately impacting the terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems at large.

Can I test my local water supply for PFAS contamination? 

Yes, you can, but it will involve the help of a laboratory. Many American laboratories have started offering PFAS contamination tests for water. All you need to do is find one nearby. Submit the water sample collected from the source, and wait for the results to arrive.

Which US states have banned PFAS?

While no state in the US has been able to ban PFAS completely as of now. Several of them are taking measures and passing laws that can regulate these harmful chemicals. As of April 2024, 28 US states have implemented one or more regulatory laws for PFAS’S.

To sum it up, the persistent PFAS’S chemicals have created for us both health and environmental hazards. While efforts are being made to invent technologies to eradicate them. We must start by being more careful about their future use at all costs.

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