How do PFAS enter our bodies? Emory researchers want to find out

New funding comes as concerns grow about ‘forever chemicals’

“Forever chemicals,” a class of substances widely used in cookware, food wrappers and other products are thought to be in the blood of nearly all U.S. residents and have been linked to serious health problems.

Now, a group of Emory University researchers have received $250,000 in federal funding to investigate how the chemicals — also known as PFAS — get into our bodies.

The Environmental Protection Agency announced last week that the team from Emory’s Rollins School of Public Health and the School of Medicine will receive funding for the next two years to investigate how people are exposed to the chemicals. The research comes amid a larger effort to effort to rein in PFAS pollution and understand the health and environmental threats posed by the chemicals, which President Joe Biden’s administration has made a top priority.

What we know about PFAS

What kinds of products are PFAS used in?

Invented by chemists in the 1930s, PFAS have been included in brand-name products like Teflon, Scotchgard and Stainmaster, as well as food wrappers, carpets and dozens of other items.The appeal of the chemicals lies in their characteristic carbon-fluorine bonds, one of the strongest known to man. But that strength makes them a problem when they escape into the environment, experts say.

What do we know about PFAS and their health effects?

A federal database shows there are now more than 14,000 PFAS or PFAS-like chemicals in existence.But we know very little about the health effects of most, said Cheryl Murphy, the director of the Center for PFAS Research at Michigan State University.The two most studied chemicals in the class — PFOS and PFOA — have been tied to several serious health conditions. Studies have revealed that the chemicals can tamp down the human immune system and reduce vaccine protection, especially in children. PFAS exposure has also been connected to cardiovascular problems and delayed development. And the Environmental Protection Agency says PFOA is likely a human carcinogen and evidence suggests PFOS may be, too.While PFOA and PFOS have been voluntarily phased out by the chemical industry, they still remain in the environment. Meanwhile, experts say manufacturers have developed a constellation of replacements. This generation of chemicals is still being studied, but the EPA says some newer PFAS have also been shown to affect the liver, the kidneys, the immune system, and human development.

What regulations on PFAS chemicals currently exist?

In 2016, the EPA set its drinking water health advisory for PFOS and PFOA at 70 parts per trillion. Then, earlier this year, it drastically cut the recommended level to less than 1 part per trillion. Last month, the EPA also proposed classifying both chemicals as hazardous substances.The agency also recently set final health advisories for two other chemicals in the class, which are considered replacements for PFOS and PFOA.Some states have adopted their own drinking water standards, and California recently announced a ban on PFAS in textiles and cosmetics set to take effect in 2025.

Several PFAS — also known as polyfluoroalkyl and perfluoroalkyl substances — have been linked to cancers, immune system suppression and elevated cholesterol. Research has shown that pregnant women can pass PFAS chemicals to their children through breastfeeding, and the chemicals have been tied to delayed infant and fetal growth, as well as decreased vaccine response in children.

The new research will build on the results of a previous study which focused on a group of African American women and their children living in the Atlanta area, said Prinn Panuwet, an assistant professor of environmental health at Emory involved in both efforts.

Researchers previously collected blood samples from the women in the study along with dust and water specimens from their homes.

An analysis of the Atlanta study group published last year in the peer-reviewed journal Environment International revealed a link between decreased fetal growth in children born to mothers whose blood contained above average levels of certain PFAS chemicals.

With the EPA funding, the Emory team wants to find out how the chemicals are entering the women’s bodies.

The researchers plan to take additional water, dust and air samples, plus have study participants wear wristbands that measure PFAS contacts. The researchers will also track the women’s diets and use of personal care products to estimate other potential exposures.

ExploreRome is grappling with toxic ‘forever chemicals’ fouling waterways

Panuwet hopes the research will allow public health experts to make recommendations to help protect vulnerable groups.

“Once we understand the pathways of exposure, then we can come up with a plan to reduce exposures in the future,” Panuwet said.

PFAS have been used for decades, but concern about the chemicals has grown in recent years.

As The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported last month, PFAS pollution in the river that serves as the city of Rome’s main water supply has triggered lawsuits and spurred costly water system upgrades that have sent residents’ water bills skyrocketing.

Some PFAS compounds have been found in the Chattahoochee River, the city of Atlanta’s main drinking water source, but the levels detected are lower than at other locations in Georgia and around the country.

The EPA recently cut the recommended drinking water levels for the two most-studied “forever chemicals” to near zero. The agency has said the move was driven by new findings showing that negative health effects can occur from PFAS exposure at levels much lower than previously thought.

There are currently no federal drinking water standards for PFAS chemicals. Some states have begun enforcing their own limits, but Georgia is not one of them.

However, new federal rules that water utilities will need to comply with are expected soon.

Later this year, the EPA is expected to propose a national drinking water standard for perfluorooctane sulfonic acid (PFOS) and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), the two most-studied “forever chemicals” linked to numerous health conditions. The agency has said it hopes to finalize the rule by the end of 2023.