It is a question that federal scientists and researchers hope to answer, at least in part, with this first multisite health effects study. It will be conducted in New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Colorado, Michigan, New Jersey, Massachusetts, New York and California, in communities where drinking water is known to have been contaminated.
In total about 8,000 adults and 2,500 children who lived in areas where drinking water was known to have been contaminated with PFAS will have blood and urine sampled and medical histories checked. The initial round of $7 million in grants to fund the work has already been distributed.
Delays in settling on and approving research protocol for the work in the seven other locations mean that actual tests on participants will most likely be put off until at least the end of next year. But researchers at some of those sites have started to collect historical information on drinking water contamination.
In most of the locations, the study will not specifically look for apparent correlations between exposure to PFAS and cancer, because the sample size is not large enough to produce statistically significant results, federal officials said.
But in Pennsylvania, researchers will be gathering data on hundreds of thousands of cancer cases in the area to see if there appears to be a high incidence of certain cancers among those exposed to the contaminated water, said Resa M. Jones, a Temple University epidemiologist who will be overseeing this work.
PFAS chemicals — which rely on a chain of carbon and fluorine atoms — are sometimes called forever chemicals, because the atomic bond in those chains is so strong they do not break down in nature, even after being ingested by humans. That quality led to their use starting in the 1950s on nonstick cookware, stain-resistant fabrics, carpets, cleaners and paints, and as a key ingredient in firefighting foams used at many military bases, among many other uses.
Public concern about the chemicals first emerged in the late 1990s in communities including Parkersburg, W.Va., which was home to a DuPont chemical manufacturing plant where one form of PFAS was made, after a series of illnesses emerged among area residents and even farm animals.