Perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), a class of chemicals manufactured since the 1940s, have been getting significant attention in the last year. Just recently, Denmark became the first country to ban PFAS chemicals. The European Food Safety Agency is also reviewing the risks PFAS pose to human health. In the U.S., litigation has been filed by several states and private citizens against various manufacturers. In addition, various studies revealed PFAS-contaminated water in the U.S. earlier this year. As a result of these developments, some states and the FDA are increasing testing and considering stricter regulation of PFAS. The publicity and new actions are likely to encourage more litigation across the U.S. For attorneys who may have injured clients considering filing suit, there are several things to keep in mind:
Which products are dangerous and why? PFAS can be found in Teflon nonstick products, stains and water repellants, paints, cleaning products, food packaging, carpets, fabrics for furniture, firefighting foams and other everyday materials. PFAS chemical are called “forever chemicals” because they don’t break down in the environment and can easily migrate into the air, dust, food, soil and water. In the body, the chemicals primarily settle into the blood, kidney and liver.
What research supports the health risks from PFAS? Scientific research has indicated potential adverse health impacts associated with PFAS exposure, including liver damage, thyroid disease, decreased fertility, high cholesterol, obesity, hormone suppression and cancer. A lawsuit filed in 2001against DuPont (Leach v. E.I. DuPont, Case No. 01-C-608, Wood County W. Va. Cir. Ct.) resulted in a settlement which included the creation of a scientific panel to evaluate whether there is a probable link between PFOA/C8 (a type of PFAS) exposure and any human disease. The Panel concluded that there was, with six illnesses.
Various recent studies have found contamination in US food and water supplies, including research by the FDA. In June, a report from the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry recommended lowering the threshold for permissible oral exposure to PFOS and PFOA because of health risks. PFOS and PFOA are the two most-studied PFAS chemicals and are considered contaminants of emerging concern by the EPA. While PFOS began to be phased out of production starting in 2000 and PFOA in 2006, similar chemicals like GenX remain. As a result, earlier this year, the EPA announced a new PFAS plan, which included setting a maximum containment level for PFOS and PFOA.
Where are actions being filed? Pending lawsuits include those filed by New Hampshire, New York, and New Jersey. In 2017 and 2018, actions were settled with residents in Ohio, West Virginia and North Carolina. Other class actions are in Colorado, Michigan, New York, and Pennsylvania. A nationwide claim was filed last year. As mentioned above, some states are looking at more regulations of PFAS, so they are likely to be future jurisdictions for litigation.
While there is evidence of a link between exposure and adverse health effects, the level of dangerous exposure is an open issue as states are imposing strict standards in the absence of federal government action. These limits on PFAS will no doubt make it easier for individual plaintiffs to sue for their own health problems due to exposure. To defend against claims, manufacturers will likely raise questions about causation and risk factors. Medical Toxicologists can assist both sides with guidance on understanding the effects of PFAS and proper diagnosis and treatment of patients who have suffered from exposure to PFAS.