Secret industry documents reveal ‘forever chemical’ makers concealed health risks

“These documents reveal clear evidence that the chemical industry knew about the dangers of PFAS."
Mrigakshi Dixit
Representational image
Representational image


A new study has revealed startling information about the makers of PFAS, also known as forever chemicals. 

It says makers covered health dangers linked to PFAS (Per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances). PFAS are widely used in clothing, household goods, and food products. 

These chemicals have recently become a global concern due to their negative impact on humans and animals. Because of their complex chemical nature, they are highly resistant to environmental degradation, earning them the moniker "forever chemicals." 

Researchers from the University of California, San Francisco, accessed highly confidential industry documents, which had been kept secret from the public for nearly 50 years. 

“These documents reveal clear evidence that the chemical industry knew about the dangers of PFAS and failed to let the public, regulators, and even their own employees know the risks,” said Tracey J. Woodruff, Ph.D., professor and director of the UCSF Program on Reproductive Health and the Environment (PRHE), in an official release

Analysis of the industry documents 

This is the first time researchers have examined PFAS documents spanning 45 years (1961 to 2006). 

Documents from the two largest PFAS producers, DuPont, and 3M, were analyzed. The new paper provides inside details of "what industry knew versus public knowledge" on PFAS use for years.

They also looked into industry tactics for covering up the toxicity of their PFAS-based products. The authors emphasize that this has significantly delayed regulatory bodies' harmful PFAS use. 

The secret documents were found in a lawsuit filed by attorney Robert Bilott, who was the first to sue DuPont for PFAS contamination successfully. The story of Bilott was featured in the film "Dark Waters."

Bilott passed on the documents to the documentary producers of The Devil We Know. And they donated the pile of documents to the UCSF Chemical Industry Documents Library.

Health hazards disclosed

The report details numerous health cases of PFAS toxicity that the industry suppressed to protect their products. Some cases include enlarged organs, animal deaths following PFAS chemical ingestion, and birth defects in children of company employees. 

The paper mentions 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 EPA as required under TSCA. These documents were all marked as ‘confidential,’ and in some cases, industry executives are explicit that they ‘wanted this memo destroyed.’”

Based in the United States, DuPont assured its employees in 1980 that C8 (one of the PFAS chemicals) "has a lower toxicity, like table salt." 

The authors go on to say that these are just a few of the many hidden cases. 

DuPont even emailed the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) after PFAS contamination lawsuits in 1998 and 2002. It asked: “We need EPA to quickly (like first thing tomorrow) say the following: That consumer products sold under the Teflon brand are safe and to date, there are no human health effects known to be caused by PFOA.”

Based on evidence of contamination, the EPA fined DuPont $16.45 million in 2004 for failing to disclose their findings on PFAS. 

“Having access to these documents allows us to see what the manufacturers knew and when, but also how polluting industries keep critical public health information private,” said first author Nadia Gaber, MD, Ph.D., who led the research as a PRHE fellow. “This research is important to inform policy and move us towards a precautionary rather than reactionary principle of chemical regulation.”

More details about this study can be found in the journal Annals of Global Health.

Study abstract:

Background: Per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are a class of widely-used chemicals that persist in the environment and bioaccumulate in humans and animals, becoming an increasing cause for global concern. While PFAS have been commercially produced since the 1940s, their toxicity was not publicly established until the late 1990s. The objective of this paper is to evaluate industry documents on PFAS and compare them to the public health literature in order to understand this consequential delay.

Methods: We reviewed a collection of previously secret industry documents archived at the UCSF Chemical Industry Documents Library, examining whether and how strategies of corporate manipulation of science were used by manufacturers of PFAS. Using well-established methods of document analysis, we developed deductive codes to assess industry influence on the conduct and publication of research. We also conducted a literature review using standard search strategies to establish when scientific information on the health effects of PFAS became public.

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