Ask an Expert: Forever Chemicals, PFAS, and Environmental Health with Carmen Marsit

April 19, 2024
Carmen Marsit, Rollins Ask an Expert

 By Kelly Jordan

The terms “PFAS (or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances)” and “forever chemicals” have popped up more frequently in news headlines as evidence about these substances and their harmful health effects continues to grow. Most recently, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) made moves to end the use of grease-proofing in food packaging and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) launched a “legally enforceable drinking water standard for PFAS.”   

PFAS chemicals are human-made innovations developed in the 1950s to problem-solve major everyday issues, including everything from water-proofing and fire-proofing to non-stick and non-skid surface coatings. While revolutionary and effective in their use, researchers are now learning about the health associations and environmental consequences that can occur when the thousands of chemicals falling under the PFAS umbrella remain in the environment forever (hence, the nickname).

Carmen Marsit, PhD, Rollins Distinguished Professor of Environmental Health, shared insights on what you should know about this group of chemicals, their impacts on health, and the path ahead.

What do we know about PFAS exposures and their impacts on human health?

In the past five years, the literature has blown up with studies about these chemicals, with even low-dose exposures showing negative outcomes. These include reproductive and birth-related outcomes [including low-fertility, high blood pressure, and low birthweight], diabetes, metabolic disease, heart disease, cancer, and more.

How prevalent are PFAS chemicals?

These chemicals are in just about everything and the environment is polluted with them. So far, there has not been good regulation to protect people or the environment from this. For years, there were no regulations at all with people and companies throwing it in unregulated landfills where it was getting into the environment. I think that has led to a lot of the public outcry we’ve seen with demanding regulation.


Are there stronger quantities of these chemicals in some countries over others?

Europe had concerns about this earlier and has already pushed some regulations around it. In the U.S, we're seeing this real push for it because a lot of the research is being done in the U.S. and is focused on this country’s populations. The reality is this is going to be everywhere. These chemicals are used in everything. That's actually a concern of mine even as we put policies in place here, is how much of this are we just going to push off to low- and middle-income countries [relating to manufacturing and waste disposal]?

Do forever chemicals also impact animal life or the environment?

It’s very likely that the same things we are seeing in people could be happening in animals too. Exposures could be affecting species out there and changing ecology. So if we see endocrine disruption occurrences, that same thing is happening out in the environment as well. This is also where the challenge comes in for food: Much of our food comes from these environments [fish swimming in contaminated streams, food grown in contaminated soil]. It’s difficult to avoid it.

What behavior changes have you personally made to limit your exposure?

It’s impossible to completely avoid exposure to forever chemicals because they really are in everything, including beauty products, food packaging, to-go containers, and plastics. Three changes we’ve made at home are moving from non-stick cookware to cast-iron, swapping out our plastic food containers for glass containers, and buying more fresh food so we can limit the amount of food packaging we are exposed to.

Looking ahead to the presidential election this November, what topics related to exposure science or climate change should be on people’s radars?

We need to be thinking about what the impacts of climate change are now and what they are going to continue to be, because they're going to continue to happen. Hopefully there are still opportunities for us to make some changes to reduce what could potentially happen. Extreme weather is going to happen [due to climate change]. Are we prepared as a country? That’s an important topic, the other one would be around these kinds of chemical regulations and how they can be improved.

What areas should the FDA, EPA, and other regulatory agencies focus on next?

We need better regulation around how these chemicals should be disposed. I also think looking more closely at consumer products is going to be really important. Grease shields are one piece of it, but they're in personal care products, they're in makeup, they're in other things people use every day on their bodies. So looking at where all of those pieces are and getting them out of those products is also going to be really important.

How do you stay motivated to do this type of research when the findings are often so negative?

A lot of what drives me is the hope that what we're doing will eventually lead to these types of policy changes that are finally starting to come down. One thing that's really frustrating is that so much research has to happen to prove these negative effects—which often takes several years— before we see those policy changes.

That's where some of the molecular-focused work several of us do within the HERCULES Exposome Research Center can be helpful. The idea there is, if we can understand at the molecular level what some of these chemicals do, can we move more quickly on proving that they're problematic instead of having to wait until we have cancer outcomes 30 years from now? 

I’m also driven by the question, “How can we help?” Even if we get every needed regulation and these chemicals are no longer on the market, they will still exist in the environment forever. We have a whole generation of kids who have been exposed. Health inequities and issues related to access are at play. We have to find ways to protect people across the board. This keeps me motivated.