Emily Scarr is director of Maryland PIRG (Public Interest Research Group).
When we met the pediatric orthopedic surgeon a few days later, I had two questions for him: First, how long would my son need to wear a cast? And second, what advice did he have for bathing him? One month, he said, and the cast was waterproof. I was pleased. “Wow,” I said. “The miracles of modern medicine, huh?”
As I tried to fall asleep that night, my mind raced. How could it be waterproof? Do they mean water-resistant? Could it be submerged in the bath or just withstand a splash in the shower? “Go to sleep, you can Google it in the morning,” I thought. And so I did.
The results added insult to injury.
PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, are a class of toxic chemicals that are used to make a wide variety of products water- and grease-resistant. They have been used in everything from nonstick pans and raincoats to food packaging and carpets. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, exposure to these chemicals, even in small amounts over time, has been linked to serious health effects including cancer, thyroid disruption and reduced vaccine response. They are also often used in waterproof casts — including the one my son would now have to wear for four weeks.
PFAS are called “forever chemicals” because they don’t break down in our bodies or in the environment. So the more they get used, the more they build up and the bigger the risk they pose to our health. This is particularly concerning for our kids, who could be exposed to these chemicals for decades to come.
If I had known the waterproof cast was made from PFAS chemicals, I would have requested an alternative. It’s not just that I am concerned about the health impacts on my son. The cast is an additional exposure in his already exposure-filled life, when you consider PFAS are in water, food and household products. What’s infuriating is that this use of PFAS is so unnecessary. It would be no hardship to sponge-bathe my son for a month, wrapping a bag around the cast, and bathe him less often. There’s absolutely no reason my toddler needs a waterproof cast, especially since that cast and thousands like it used every day require producing more toxic “forever chemicals.” That increases all of our children’s exposure and increases the amount of these chemicals in our environment when discarded casts get landfilled or incinerated at the end of their very short useful lives.
This year, Maryland passed a law to ban the use of PFAS in food packaging, rugs and carpets and to switch to safer alternatives in firefighting foam. Many companies are moving away from PFAS in their products, but medical use of PFAS has become widespread in various equipment and devices.
Our country’s top environmental health experts are warning that PFAS should be phased out of use as soon as possible. In June, the EPA issued new health advisories that say there is no safe level of some PFAS in drinking water.
Do the costs of PFAS use — “forever” damage to human health — outweigh the benefits for some medical uses? I don’t know for sure. What I do know is that the tradeoff of convenience for chemicals is not worth the hazard to any of our children. I’ll take a stinky toddler over “forever chemicals” every time. Maryland should take the next step to reduce exposure to PFAS chemicals by testing for and cleaning up contamination in our water.