Ever since Erin Brokovich dramatized it, there has been much heartburn about a common class of chemicals known as PFAS that are widespread in the environment. It is widely used in industry and most Americans as a result have some of it in their blood. And is bad for rats if you give it to them. So it must be bad for people? Sadly for the drama-queens, it isn't. Over many studies PFAS have been found to be harmless to people in the doses normally encountered.
The latest study is one done in Australia and everybody seems very tense about it. You can read below a claim that the government tried to nobble it. In the washup, however, they had no need to. The researchers once again found no conclusive evidence of harm from PFAS. It was a rather pathetic study but I will bypass that for the moment and simply reproduce the actual findings from the study -- below:
For most of these health outcomes, we estimated the differences between the towns and comparison areas to be relatively small. For others, the differences were of modest size, but our estimates were imprecise, meaning the likely size of each difference could be anywhere between quite small to quite large. Even though our studies included almost everyone who had ever lived in the towns in the years we had available data (in some cases dating back to 1983), some of the conditions studied are uncommon and we observed only a few cases. For these outcomes, we could not precisely estimate the differences between the towns and comparison areas, and there is very little we can say about whether a difference really exists.
Due to the nature of our studies, there were certain design limitations. We were unable to fully account for certain risk factors (e.g. smoking) that could have led to observed differences in rates (or lack of them) between the towns and comparison areas (‘confounding’). In particular, we were not able to account for socioeconomic factors as well as we would have liked. This is important, as socioeconomic conditions are strongly linked to health. In addition, some findings could have arisen just by chance alone and not because an association truly exists.
In light of the above, while there were higher rates of some adverse outcomes in individual towns, the evidence suggesting that this was due to living in these areas was limited. We did not have direct measurements of PFAS exposure and we cannot rule out that the higher rates were due to chance or confounding. Further, there was low consistency in our observations across the three towns (something we would not expect if PFAS caused an outcome), and there is limited evidence from other studies observing similar results or explaining how potential biological processes can result in PFAS causing these effects in humans. Overall, our findings are consistent with previous studies, which have not conclusively identified causative links between PFAS and these health outcomes
People living in areas with high PFAS concentrations sometimes blame their illnesses on it but that is an unproven and unlikely claim
Health officials asked university researchers to remove references about potential community concern over elevated rates of cancer found in towns contaminated with “forever chemicals”, even as the federal government was defending multimillion-dollar litigation over the pollution.
Emails obtained by the Herald and The Age under freedom of information laws reveal federal health bureaucrats expressed concern to Australian National University researchers about how they reported “very high” rates of certain types of cancer they uncovered in an independent study of residents exposed to per- and poly-fluoroalkyl chemicals (PFAS) leaching off Defence sites.
Samantha Kelly with her son William, 7, in the garden of their new home after they fled contaminated Williamtown. Kelly fears her son’s health issues could be linked to exposure to “forever chemicals” after he was born with high levels in his blood.
The emails reveal the Department of Health circulated the draft version of the study to other Commonwealth departments “for their review of any red-line issues” in October 2021, while Defence was in court defending a $155 million class action over property devaluation caused by the toxins.
In anonymised emails released to the Herald, a bureaucrat told the researchers it was “counterproductive” to mention throughout their report that residents may be concerned about elevated rates of adverse health outcomes in their communities.
The department suggested researchers “highlight the significance of ‘null findings’” and say their study found “no consistent links between PFAS contamination and the health outcomes observed”.
The researchers declined to add the suggested line. “The research team is independent and did not make changes to any parts of the reports where we disagreed,” said Professor Martyn Kirk, who led the ANU research team.
“The research team did not agree to follow any departmental advice to emphasise null findings.
“We didn’t include anything in the report that we weren’t happy saying, particularly as it relates to causes of disease.”
A large number of the changes the department requested were not made by the researchers, a review of the documents by this masthead confirms.
A spokeswoman for the Department of Health said it did not seek to change the study’s findings but rather to “highlight the findings as presented and draw out the context”.
The spokeswoman rejected suggestions the department tried to “downplay” the findings of elevated rates of certain adverse outcomes in the towns.
“In reviewing the draft reports from the study the minor suggestions made by the department focused on increasing clarity and consistency within the reports,” she said.
“It was a matter for the ANU study team as to how they considered and incorporated any feedback provided.”