Blood samples are seen in this 2020 file photo. Credit: Taimy Alvarez / AP

A recent study published in the scientific journal Exposure and Health suggests that Americans are spending billions of dollars a year to respond to health issues caused by exposure to so-called forever chemicals.

The research, conducted by the NYU Grossman School of Medicine, links nearly $63 billion in health care costs to 13 conditions that could be caused or exacerbated by exposure to PFAS.

PFAS are a group of more than 100 chemicals that do not easily break down in the environment; perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) are most commonly found in common materials. The chemicals are found in many everyday products, like water-resistant food wrappers, non-stick pans and waterproof jackets.

Doctors in Maine have encountered patients throughout the state who are increasingly concerned about the effects of the chemicals on their bodies, despite elusive links between PFAS exposure and long-term health issues.

Dr. Rachel Criswell, a pediatrician at Skowhegan Family Medicine who has conducted research on exposure through breast milk, said that topic has become a more frequent one, especially for patients in Fairfield, where the federal government will   review health risks linked to sludge spread as fertilizer in the town.

Three of the most commonly detected PFAS — often referred to as “forever chemicals” because they slowly break down in the environment — have been linked to an enzyme that indicates   nonalcoholic fatty liver disease,   a study from the University of Southern California’s Keck School of Medicine published in Environmental Health Perspectives recently found.

The Grossman-led research, which surveyed a group of roughly 5,000 Americans, suggests that long-term PFAS exposure could also contribute to or exacerbate other ailments, such as low birth weights, endometriosis, adult-onset type 2 diabetes and infertility in both men and women.

A conservative estimate links approximately $5.5 billion in health care costs annually to manage or treat symptoms linked to PFAS exposure, while an extremely aggressive estimate attributes approximately $62.6 billion in annual health care costs to PFAS exposure.

“Our results strongly support the recent decision by the Environmental Protection Agency to lower the safe allowable level of these substances in water,” senior author Leonardo Trasande told the New Atlas. “Based on our estimates, the cost of eradicating contamination and replacing this class of chemical with safer alternatives is ultimately justified when considering the tremendous economic and medical risks of allowing them to persist in the environment.”

The EPA recently issued a   nonbinding health advisory for four of the most common per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances that would reduce drinking water standards from 70 parts per trillion to four parts per quadrillion, a level 17,500 times lower. However, because it is a health advisory, there has not been legal precedent to spur nationwide initiatives to mitigate environmental buildup of PFAS.

Recently, researchers at Stockholm University found that nearly all of the world’s rainwater contains PFAS at a level much higher than the EPA’s safe drinking standard.

A July report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine suggests that anyone with a history of exposure to forever chemicals should be tested for levels of the toxins in their blood. Tests are not   readily available in much of Maine at this point in time.

Leela Stockley

Leela Stockley is an alumna of the University of Maine. She was raised in northern Maine, and loves her cat Wesley, her puppy Percy and staying active in the Maine outdoors.