By: Rochelle Durand
Summary. A recent study in Seattle, Washington found alarming levels of toxic chemicals called PFAS in samples of mothers’ breast milk. Researchers from Indiana University, University of Washington Children's Research Institute, and the organization ‘Toxic-Free Future’ followed 50 women in the Seattle area and measured the parts per trillion of nine different PFAS in their breast milk. They found PFA levels ranging from 52 parts per trillion, up to 500 parts per trillion. The median contamination levels among the 50 participants were 152 parts per trillion. For reference, in 2016, the Environmental Protection Agency set the PFA level for drinking water at 70 parts per trillion. Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, are a group of man-made chemicals that can not break down on their own and can accumulate in the human body with negative health effects. These substances gained the nickname “forever chemical” due to their persistence in the environment and the human body. PFAS were invented in the 1940s and are best known for their water, fire, oil, and temperature resistance. They can be found everywhere, from non-stick appliances, rain jackets, food wrappers, and fire-fighting foams. PFAS can make its way into the human body through multiple pathways. This includes the air we breathe, the water we drink, the food we consume, and household furnishings such as couches and carpets. It is now believed that over 98% of Americans have some level of PFAS in their blood. Once in the bloodstream, PFAS can travel to tissues and can make its way into the placenta and breastmilk of expecting mothers. From there, PFAS are passed down from the mother to the child. As more women are exposed to PFAS, more toxins are passed down to their children. Exposure to these toxic chemicals can cause adverse health effects for humans and animals, including decreased immune response, thyroid effects, increased risk of kidney and testicular cancer, and increased cholesterol levels. Members from Toxic-Free Future and researchers from the study are now raising concern over the rising levels of toxins in breast milk, advocating for a state-wide ban or regulation on PFAS. Newer PFAs are being found in higher concentrations, showing that changing the type PFAS did not solve the problem. Even older PFA chemicals that are no longer being produced are still being found in breast milk samples in high amounts, proving that the whole class of PFAS needs to be addressed, not only certain kinds.
Why we should care? PFAS are found around us in everyday products. They can be passed down to our children since they cannot be naturally broken down, causing health effects that can last for generations.
I found this article interesting because not only did it include in-depth information on PFAS, but it also included an interview with one of the mothers who took part in the study, Vera Harrington. Harrington discusses her anxieties surrounding PFAS, and how avoiding them seems “out of her control”. She explains what products she will no longer be used in preparation for the arrival of her second child; including carpet cleaning treatments and a stain-resistant rocker that she bought for her first child. In addition to the interview with Harrington, the article provides useful infographics displaying the findings from the Seattle-based study, showing the different types of PFAS that were observed and the ppt (parts per trillion) recorded. The article also discusses the ways big corporations such as McDonald’s are taking action to remove PFAS from their products and other ways that organizations such as Toxic-Free Future are advocating for new legislation.
Science in Action.
Dr. Sheela Sathyanarayana is an Associate Professor of Pediatrics and Adjunct Professor in the Department of Environmental & Occupational Health Sciences at the University of Washington.
Dr. Sathyanarayana’s research focuses on PVC and BPA chemical exposures and their effects on the endocrine system as well as reproductive development. A majority of her research examines the relationship between toxic chemicals found in our environment and their effect on pregnancy outcomes and early childhood development. Recently, Sathyanarayana’s research has expanded to PFAS and their effects on the human body and the reproductive system. Her goals are to use science to influence policymaking and to protect children’s health. In the past, she has served as the chair of the US Environmental Protection Agency’s Children’s Health Protection Advisory Committee. She currently is a medical director at the University of Washington who provides health consultations through the Pediatric Environmental Health Specialty Unit to help parents better understand the dangers of toxic chemicals in their home environments. Her work is relevant to PFAS because just like other man-made chemicals such as PVC and BPA, they can have detrimental effects on the endocrine system in both babies and adults, and can accumulate in the body for long amounts of time.