Representatives of 16 federal agencies gathered to exchange information on a class of chemicals known by the acronym PFAS. The meeting Feb. 5-6, at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, paved the way for quickly sharing results of ongoing research.
PFAS is the collective name for polyfluorinated and perfluorinated substances, which are in the news across the country due to widespread exposures and uncertainty about health risks. The meeting was hosted by the Committee on Environment, Natural Resources, and Sustainability (CENRS), which is part of the National Science and Technology Council.
Tremendous interest in PFAS nationwide
According to NIEHS Senior Toxicologist Chris Weis, Ph.D., PFAS have received tremendous attention in recent decades, especially with discovery of such compounds in the drinking water supplies of communities in the Northeast, North Carolina, and elsewhere. Weis represented the NIEHS at the federal meeting.
“PFAS is a collection of 3,000 to 5,000 different fluorinated compounds that almost always occur in mixtures,” said Weis. Mixtures pose special challenges for research and regulatory processes, which typically focus on single chemicals, he added.
NIEHS, the Department of Defense, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency co-chair the CENRS Toxics and Risks subcommittee, which led the proceedings.
Exposure, health, and clean up
Organizers focused on PFAS exposure science, health science, and remediation and treatment of contaminated areas. Invited experts from academia and industry provided updates on scientific findings. State epidemiologists from four states directly handling exposure issues — Colorado, New Hampshire, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania — described issues facing public health agencies.
“More than 150 participants shared ongoing research and achieved a better understanding of the science behind decision-making regarding PFAS,” said Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D., director of NIEHS and the National Toxicology Program (NTP).
The meeting succeeded in establishing a foundation of common knowledge and identifying numerous opportunities for collaboration, according to Birnbaum. “I think it will facilitate future information-sharing across federal agencies, from high-level officials to laboratory researchers,” she said.
Weis applauded NTP scientists for their efforts to share research, especially with affected communities. “Sue Fenton [Ph.D.,] gave an important talk at the meeting and continues to be a wonderful liaison between the subcommittee and NTP, as has Mike DeVito [Ph.D.],” he said. “Both have been extremely helpful in keeping the subcommittee informed of what NTP is doing in this area.”
Compelling need for more research
NIEHS grantee Joseph Braun, Ph.D., from Brown University, presented findings from epidemiological studies that pointed to links between PFAS exposures in early development and fetal growth, risk of obesity, and duration of breastfeeding. He also discussed the biological effects involved in the associations.
“There is still a compelling need to conduct research quantifying the health effects of PFAS exposure,” Braun said. “Local public health agencies are on the front lines, talking to the public about how these chemicals affect their risk for disease and ways to lessen those risks.”
Accordingly, the meeting included a session focused on risk assessment and needs for health-related data.