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Study reveals companies used Big Tobacco's tactics to 'distort' evidence of toxic 'forever' chemicals in their products

Watchdogs worry that public awareness about the dangers of PFAS is now behind.

DuPont forever' chemicals

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It turns out the chemical industry knew about the health risks associated with "forever chemicals" far sooner than we thought, but chose to "delay public awareness," according to a study from Boston College's Annals of Global Health.  

As a result, government regulations and research that could have prevented the substances from leaching into our bodies and the world were also delayed

What happened? 

The study looked at two of the largest plastic companies in the world, DuPont and 3M. Researchers claim company officials knew the chemicals had an adverse impact on people and animals as early as the 1960s. But they were not transparent about the ramifications, similar to Big Tobacco's approach about the cancer risks of its products. 

"All these companies … try to prevent the development of public understanding and they're always years ahead of the public and mainstream scientific community," said researcher Stan Glantz, the Guardian reports. 

The toxic substances, also called PFAS, are tagged as "forever chemicals" because they take a very long time to break down naturally. There are about 15,000 of them, according to the Guardian. PFAS are used to make a variety of household products, including Teflon, and are linked to a wide range of health risks. One example from 1961 involves Teflon linked to enlarged rat livers, per the Guardian.

The new analysis is startling, as it reveals company officials knew about birth defects among pregnant workers and other maladies, but kept quiet, in part to maintain the bottom line, according to the Guardian. 

Here's just one description from the report, an example of how the companies allegedly suppressed information to "distort" public discourse: "Internal studies were identified, ranging from 1961 to 1994, showing that DuPont had evidence of PFAS toxicity from internal animal and occupational studies that they did not publish in the scientific literature and failed to report their findings to [the government]."

Why does it matter? 

It took decades for appropriate warnings and government rule-making to regulate the tobacco industry. Watchdogs worry that public awareness about the dangers of PFAS is now behind, despite strong evidence of the health risks. 

"PFAS are now [common] in the population and environment," the study's authors wrote. Forever chemicals are in the blood of 97% of Americans, according to a government report.

What's being done to help? 

3M has reportedly planned to stop making PFAS by the end of 2025. DuPont also made pledges to reduce use, according to WTOP News

And, the chemicals seem to finally be on the government's agenda. The Environmental Protection Agency has proposed listing two of the most common PFAS as hazardous substances, among other measures. 

The actions would have come sooner, health advocates said, if DuPont and 3M shared what they knew with the public. 

"This all would have occurred a lot earlier," study co-author Tracey Woodruff told the Guardian. 

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