According to new research,  the chemical pollutant PFAS — or polyfluorolalkyl substances — can cause different kinds of chemical mutations depending on a person’s race. Sung Kyun Park, associate professor in the School of Public Health, presented this research in a seminar on Tuesday sponsored by the Integrated Health Sciences Core of Michigan Center on Lifestage Environmental Exposures and Disease, or M-LEEaD.

PFAS have been used for decades in industrial and consumer products, such as cookware, grease-proof food packaging and fire-retardant materials. Park’s research highlighted two different forms of PFAS, distinguished by their functional groups: PFOA and PFOS. PFOA and PFOS have different manufacturing processes and are used in different products.

PFOA is most often contracted when an individual’s food is contaminated by products that use PFOA, such as greaseproof takeout boxes or certain kinds of cookware. PFOS is more commonly used in the auto industry and can contaminate drinking water. According to Park’s research, white women are more likely to contract PFOA, while Black women report the highest levels of PFOS.

Park said PFOS is a broader societal issue that cannot be ameliorated through individual decisions.

“My two cents from my studies, we need to better understand the difference between PFOA and PFOS,” Park said. “… PFOS is more related to the environmental contamination, drinking water contamination — that’s why you cannot avoid. So individual recommendation doesn’t work. For PFOA it is more related to the consumer-product use. That’s why you can recommend them, ‘Don’t use or a little less use your (container for) fast food’ can work. But for PFOS, that should be done at the population level and at the more regulatory level, lowering the standard is the critical one.”

PFAS are released into the environment from manufacturing plants and contaminate water supplies. According to the city of Ann Arbor, samples collected from the city’s drinking water in the fall of 2018 showed a rise in PFAS levels since 2016, prompting responses from local elected representatives.

Public Health student Andrea Winne, who attended Park’s talk, remarked to The Daily after the speech that she found the levels of PFAS in water supplies unsettling.

“It’s kind of scary how much PFAS is in our water, especially since we don’t know what it does,” Winne said.

Though Park’s research highlighted a correlation between race and the kind of PFAS contracted, it did not track the residential areas or neighborhoods in which women live specifically. He said this information is necessary to determine a reason why Black women contract PFOS more than white women, and why the opposite is true with PFOA.

Park said Black and Latina women are disproportionately represented in lower socioeconomic classes, which likely contributes to the problem.

“I cannot say (for sure), because we don’t have information on where they live,” Park said. “We know the study is cities, but we do not know where they live, and so their residential location really close to any contaminate area, treatment plant or whatever, and that’s why we cannot comfortably say, ‘That’s the reason why we see Black women higher,’ but just in general, in environmental disparity study, but more social-economic data of populations, higher proportion in that group is African-American and Hispanic population, so that’s why they could be at higher risk of this PFOS exposure.”

According to Park, PFOS is especially relevant in the state of Michigan. PFOS can be found in surfactants — substances that reduce surface tension — and are often used to protect workers and aid manufacturing processes. This is particularly true to auto industries, ubiquitous in Michigan.

“Chrome plating industry, manufacturing companies all around, all this is Michigan, because Michigan is a Motown, an auto industry,” Park said. “There’s many different plating companies and when they make this inside the car, chromium plating generates toxic hexavalent chrome mists which are dangerous to workers, and a surfactant is important to protect workers. PFOS is widely used as a surfactant in the auto supply manufacturing process. They need some type of surfactant, but PFAS is the answer, well, we need to use different surfactant. But the cost matters. That’s why they’re very resistant to change to something else, but in terms of health, we need to think about whether PFAS is a good option.” 

Park said if the government were to mandate a phasing out of PFOS and PFOA, industries are able to develop something else that can serve the same function as PFAS.

“One thing I want to point out is if you replace, now PFOS and PFOA, they phase out … the industry, they’ll develop something else,” Park said. “Just forcing the industry to replace is something we need to think about. We need to find the right surfactant. Otherwise, the health effect remains.”

Many of the effects of PFOS and PFOA remain unknown. Public Health students and other attendees said they hope to use Park’s seminar to advance their own research and discover exactly how PFAS in its different forms affects people’s health.

Public Health student Jarrod Eaton is conducting a capstone project on PFAS’s relation to metabolic syndrome and cardiovascular disease. Eaton said the seminar presented by Park spurred ideas to apply to his own project.

“It definitely gave me a couple of different things to think about for my capstone project and how I approach things, so overall, I thought it was very helpful,” Eaton said. “A couple of different topics came up about what could be confounding, some of the different results, which is something I definitely will take a look at in my own research. One thing that I thought about today was the issue of exercise and maybe seeing how that confounds the results. I think that’s something interesting that I’ll definitely be taking a look at.”

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