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Explore the World of PFAS With Dr. Carol Kwiatkowski

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Dr. Carol Kwiatkowski, Vice President of Research at Million Marker and Adjunct Assistant Professor at North Carolina State University, works to identify products that contain hormone-disrupting chemicals, including per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, commonly known as PFAS. These PFAS compounds are widely used and persist in the environment and the human body for extended periods. Her work focuses on detecting these substances and providing solutions to minimize harmful exposure.

Technology Networks invited Kwiatkowski to an Ask Me Anything session to answer your questions about PFAS and their impact on human health. These are just some of the questions that we asked Kwiatkowski, click below to watch the full AMA.

Lucy Lawrence (LL): What is the difference between PFAS and microplastics?

Carol Kwiatkowski (CK): PFAS are chemicals that are defined by the presence of a fully fluorinated carbon atom. This carbon and fluorine bond is not a natural thing, it's a man-made bond that is incredibly strong and that's why these chemicals don't break down. That defines a PFAS chemical. Because plastics are made up of different chemicals that serve different functions, PFAS can be used as an additive in plastic. PFAS may also be a contaminant in plastic if they weren't intentionally added during processing. Plastics go through different processing phases, such as an extrusion phase where they are pushed through a mold. PFAS can be used to help them slide through that mold, and residual PFAS can then contaminate the plastic. In contrast, microplastics refer to the breakdown of larger plastics in the environment. Also, certain microplastics, such as microplastic beads, can be used for the production of larger plastic items.

The chemical structure of perfluorooctanoic acid

Figure 1: Chemical structure of perfluorooctanoic acid, a perfluoroalkyl substance (PFAS). Credit: Technology Networks, adapted from PFAS Detection.

LL: Are there any links between PFAS exposure and long-term health effects?

CK: Some of the more definitive health effects are kidney and testicular cancer. There are also long-term fertility issues as well as potential thyroid problems.

There are many long-term health effects that are not easily resolved and removing PFAS from your body wouldn’t get rid of those outcomes.

There are also developmental effects that occur from PFAS exposure, it can cause developmental problems in children, and again removing PFAS doesn’t solve the problem. One of the biological systems that is most sensitive to PFAS is the immune system. Our immune system's job is to be sensitive to things that are coming in from the environment. The strongest research on the immune system comes from work investigating immune suppression, specifically suppressing our response to vaccines. They've shown that for vaccines like tetanus and diphtheria, children who have high levels of PFAS have a lower vaccine response. There's also been research into the COVID-19 vaccines that suggests they might not be as effective in people with high levels of PFAS.

The mechanisms by which PFAS exposure may impact health

Figure 2: Schematic highlighting the mechanisms by which PFAS exposure may impact health including disruption of liver, kidney and peripheral immune system functions. Credit: Technology Networks, adapted from PFAS Detection.

LL: Are there any groups or professionals that have a higher risk of exposure to PFAS?

CK: There are definitely groups at higher risk, firefighters being prime among them. Also, people who live in highly contaminated areas where PFAS are manufactured, or where they are used heavily, are also at risk. For firefighters, there are a lot of different exposures. One is the gear they wear, which is coated in PFAS for their protection. Safer alternatives are being developed and used, and are required in some countries, which is good news. There can also be PFAS exposure from the firefighting foam they use. And again, there are alternatives for that so, thankfully, PFAS in firefighting foams is more controlled now. There's also a lot of exposure during their work: when everything in a house is burning, PFAS are released into the environment. Firefighters are exposed to many contaminants from the burning of household products and building materials, but groups are working with firefighters and firefighter organizations to remedy that situation.

LL: PFAS exists in a lot of makeup products, why are these ingredients allowed in our products?

CK: It can be easy, especially if you're a nonprofit and you're fighting for better laws, to point a finger at industry and ask: “Why are they allowing this in products?” If you dial back a few decades to the origin of PFAS in the early 1900s, they became a very popular chemical around World War Two when there was a lot of focus on better living through chemistry. PFAS quickly became miracle chemicals, they could be used for so many different things. They have great functions: water repellency, oil repellency, which creates stain repellency, and they act as lubricants.

The functions that they provided were a dream come true for chemists.

At that point, there wasn't a whole lot of research into health effects or a lot of regulations around them. Having said that, the chemical manufacturers who made PFAS were aware that there were health effects in their laboratory animals, specifically in the liver. And they were also aware that their employees were suffering from health effects because of PFAS. The public was not made aware of that until the early 2000s. That provides context as to why it was allowed in products. Now that we do know about the risks of PFAS, the question becomes why are they still allowed in products? That is because changing the process is like trying to get the Titanic to turn. The government and regulatory processes that are involved in telling a company that they can’t make a product anymore are very complex. That manufacturer will want to know that their specific chemical is a problem. Now, there are thousands of PFAS chemicals being discovered. The challenge lies in making positive changes quickly.

LL: What are we likely to see in the future of PFAS work?

CK: I hope there is work in terms of remediation and cleanup. You have to stop these chemicals coming into the system and then you have to clean up the mess that you've already made. In terms of regulations, some people are trying to stop them from being used and prevent them from getting into the system. There are a lot of individual companies looking at how to make progress in reducing the use of PFAS. We tend to paint the industry with a broad brush and say that they are all responsible for our problems. But there's a difference between the chemical manufacturers, who are resisting the regulations, and the product manufacturers, who are people who happen to make a great product because someone else sold them a PFAS coating. There are a lot of these product manufacturers who are on board with finding alternatives or reducing the amount of PFAS they are using, especially with consumer pressure right now. I think it is important that moving forward consumers know that they have the power. By making the decision not to buy a product with PFAS, you are helping.

LL: How can people stay up to date on PFAS-related issues?

CK: The Green Science Policy Institute has a website called Six Classes, and one of the six classes that they study is PFAS. They have a short video that is just 4 minutes long that tells you about PFAS. They also have some other general information and resources about PFAS. The Green Science Policy Institute also has a website called PFAS central, which is the one that I would recommend. It is updated every week, and it features the latest PFAS science news and policy.

Dr. Carol Kwiatkowski was speaking to Lucy Lawrence, Senior Digital Content Producer for Technology Networks.

About the interviewee

Carol Kwiatkowski is an Adjunct Assistant Professor at North Carolina State University and former director of The Endocrine Disruption Exchange, a science-based non-profit organization. She has many years of experience evaluating and communicating scientific studies of environmental chemicals that affect human health, particularly endocrine disruptors. Her training began at the College of William and Mary where she received her BA, followed by a PhD from the University of Denver.