Researchers led by Mount Sinai report that Asian Americans have a much higher exposure than other racial or ethnic groups to PFAS, a family of thousands of synthetic chemicals also known as “forever toxic” chemicals.
People frequently encounter PFAS (polyfluoroalkyl substances) in daily life, and these exposures carry potentially harmful health effects, according to the study published in Environmental science and technologyIn the special issue “Data Science for the Advancement of Environmental Science, Engineering, and Technology.”
The scientists estimated the total person’s exposure burden to PFAS and took into account the heterogeneity of exposure (eg, different diets and behaviors) of different groups of people that could expose them to different combinations of PFAS. The researchers found that Asian Americans had a significantly higher incidence of exposure to PFAS than all other American racial or ethnic groups, and that the average exposure score for Asian Americans was 89 percent higher than that of non-Hispanic whites.
This is the first time that researchers have taken the complex exposure sources of different groups of people to calculate a person’s exposure burden to PFAS. To achieve this, they used an advanced psychometric and data science method called Mixed Item Response Theory. The researchers analyzed human vital monitoring data from the US National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, which is a representative sample of the US population.
This research suggests that biomonitoring and risk assessment should consider an exposure measure that takes into account the fact that different groups of people are exposed to many different sources and patterns of PFAS. Based on these findings, this research believes that sources of exposure, such as dietary sources and occupational exposure, may underlie variability in exposure burden. This will be an important topic for future work, as sources of exposure to PFAS are difficult to trace because they are so ubiquitous.
We found that if we use a tailored burden-scoring approach, we can detect some variations in the burden of PFAS exposure across population subgroups. These differences become hidden if we use a one-size-fits-all approach to determining the magnitude of the exposure burden that everyone bears. In order to promote accurate environmental health, we need to optimally and equitably measure the exposure burden of PFAS mixtures, to ensure that our exposure burden measure is fair and beneficial to all people.
Shelly Liu, PhD, associate professor of population health science and policy at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai
PFAS contamination is a major health concern, and nearly all Americans have detectable levels of PFAS chemicals in their blood. PFAS are everywhere, used in products that resist heat, oil, stains, grease, and water. The Biden administration has committed $9 billion to clean up PFAS, and in March 2023, the Environmental Protection Agency proposed the first enforceable federal standards to regulate PFAS contamination in public drinking water.
In the future, Dr. Liu’s team plans to incorporate toxicological information on each PFAS chemical into an exposure burden registry, to further assess variations in toxicity-informed exposure burden in vulnerable groups and population subgroups.
The research was funded by National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) R03ES033374 and National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) K25HD104918.