Environmental Scientists Call for Stronger WHO Guidance on Toxic PFAS “Forever Chemicals”

WHO's draft guidance on PFAS water contamination fails to take into account key scientific literature linking exposure to the toxic chemicals to cancer.

Amid rising concerns over the long-term health risks from PFAS water contamination, an organization comprised of over 100 experts on the toxic chemicals is challenging the World Health Organizations (WHO) to draft guidelines for PFAS drinking water standards.

Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) include over 9,000 man-made chemicals, which have been frequently used in consumer and industrial products to resist grease, oil, and water since the 1940’s. However, since the chemicals are known to build up in the environment and human body, they are increasingly referred to as “forever” chemicals and dangerous levels of PFAS have been identified in drinking water throughout the United States.

This month, the Green Science Policy Institute sent a letter to the World Health Organization (WHO), urging the global leader on health policy to significantly revise their recommendations on side effects and potential remediation efforts to remove PFAS chemicals from drinking water, warning the guidance omits several serious adverse health effects associated with the chemicals.

The letter was sent in response to a draft background document for the development of WHO Guidelines for Drinking-Water Quality, released for public review in late September.

PFAS Exposure Side Effects

PFAS chemicals have been used for decades, due to their ability to resist heat, grease, stains and water. As a result, they are found in a vast amount of consumer products, including food packaging materials, pizza boxes, popcorn bags, non-stick cooking pans and other items. They are also heavily used in aqueous film-forming foams used by civilian and military firefighters to combat chemical fires.

Exposure to the chemicals has been linked to the development of several different types of cancers, with recent studies finding that PFAS exposure can cause liver damage, thyroid disease, high cholesterol and other side effects. However, the full extent of their adverse effects on the human body are still relatively unknown.

According to Green Science Policy Institute letter, which was addressed to WHO’s Unit Head of Water, Sanitation, Hygiene and Health, Bruce Gordon, the agency’s guidelines for drinking water quality have overlooked and omitted concerns regarding PFAS side effects shown in recently published peer-reviewed medical research.

Specifically, the research organization states WHO omits or obscures strong evidence of the links between PFAS chemicals and cancer outlined in several animal and human studies, which have received recognition and support by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), California EPA, and the US EPA Science Advisory Board (SAB) and its PFAS Review Panel.

The group also claims WHO has overlooked the toxic effects of PFAS chemicals on the human liver, and has dismissed evidence that PFAS cause increases in biomarkers of liver damage and microscopic changes in liver cells indicative of steatosis (fatty liver) in multiple species of experimental animals, as well as in cultured cells.

Lastly, the report outlines that WHO has further overlooked data on the increased cholesterol risk and immune effects caused by both perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS), which are two of the most widely used types of PFAS chemicals.

The organization, which is comprised of 116 scientists, who are experts on PFAS, is encouraging the agency to significantly revise the WHO Guidelines for Drinking Water Quality document based on the latest available research, or to fully withdrawal the proposed guidance altogether, and to adopt an unbiased and independent scientifically defensible health-based approach for establishing a PFAS drinking water guidance.

“WHO should enforce conflict-of-interest policies, so that those with financial and other conflicts-of-interest are not in advisory, peer-review, or decision-making roles”, the letter states.

PFAS Drinking Water Contamination Lawsuits: November 2022

Manufacturers of PFAS chemicals currently face hundreds of firefighting foam lawsuits brought by individuals diagnosed with cancer after direct contact with the chemicals during their careers as a firefighter. In addition, a growing number of PFAS water contamination lawsuits are being pursued by individuals diagnosed with ulcerative colitis or cancer, after regularly drinking water known to contain the chemicals.

Given common questions of fact and law presented in the claims, all federal water contamination lawsuits over PFAS chemicals in AFFF are currently centralized before U.S. District Judge Richard M. Gergel in the District of South Carolina, for coordinated discovery, pretrial proceedings and a series of early bellwether trials, which are expected to begin next year.

Early in the pretrial proceedings, Judge Gergel has established a “bellwether” program that started with a group of water contamination cases going through case-specific discovery in preparation for a series of early trial dates, that are expected to begin in mid-2023.

If parties do not reach an firefighting foam water contamination settlement agreement once the pretrial proceedings and bellwether test trials are completed, or the litigation is otherwise resolved, the cases will be remanded back to their originating federal court districts for trial.

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