Researchers Can Map PFAS Exposure to Try to Stop Contamination Sources
Many residents of Brunswick and New Hanover counties in North Carolina didn’t know why they had higher rates of brain tumors, breast cancers, and other rare diseases. These counties are downriver from a Chemours fluorochemical manufacturing plant and residents now know PFAS contamination is the cause of all these diseases. It took a long time to connect the diseases with PFAS chemicals. There was a lot of testing and lawsuits which helped link the aggressive cancers with the per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, known as PFAS chemicals, that were released into the environment. These chemicals last an incredibly long time and can be found in products like nonstick cookware, water-resistant clothing, firefighting foam, cosmetics, food packaging, school uniforms, and insecticides. It is hard to trace someone’s exposure because 97 percent of Americans have been exposed to thousands of these chemicals.
A study published in Science of the Total Environment found that people’s exposure to PFAS chemicals could be tracked with blood samples. It is not possible to track the exposures based on an individual’s sample, but it is possible to use the samples to map PFAS exposures. This could allow researchers to identify what people are exposed to without having any knowledge about chemical releases in the area, helping researchers to pinpoint where PFAS in people’s bloodstreams came from. Whether it is from food, non-stick cookware, or from water, researchers could find the source of the chemicals, but there needs to be more data collected about where PFAS are stored in the body, where they come from in the environment, and what PFAS sources are out there. This would allow doctors to find where people are most exposed, so contamination can be mitigated and regulated to ensure human health and safety.
Researchers were surprised at the effectiveness of the models because they have not been used for tracking PFAS chemicals. Instead, they were meant to track particulate air pollution and other contaminants. It is much harder to track PFAS because they do not have chemical fingerprints that can let researchers identify where they came from. It was possible for the study to identify the chemical fingerprints from a Space Force base in Colorado and the Chemours plant in North Carolina though.
When there are more data points that researchers can utilize for tracking, the models become more effective. Different PFAS do not have the same reactions in the body. Short-chain PFAS that are soluble in water for instance are more likely to be in urine than in blood. This is why knowing where PFAS can be stored in the human body is so important. These chemicals can also occur in the liver, brain, lungs, and other locations that are much harder to take samples from. Other PFAS chemicals like the ones with carbon-hydrogen bonds can turn into other distinct compounds when metabolized, which then can make researchers believe people were exposed to a completely different substance. The models cannot measure everything, but more data points can help researchers find the correct source of compounds.
The ideal scenario is for the models to become more accurate so they can help less exposed communities. A larger amount of data collected could allow communities to avoid PFAS exposures. The goal is not to link exposures to a contamination source but rather stop contamination sources before they become more serious.
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