A technical shoe made using Pfoa, a substance capable of waterproofing the fabric. Photo by Noel Oviedo/Unsplash
A technical shoe made using Pfoa, a substance capable of waterproofing the fabric. Photo by Noel Oviedo/Unsplash

An IARC study confirms that PFOAs are carcinogenic and toxic

The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has published a document confirming the hazardous nature of perfluorooctanoic acid, which is used as a waterproofing coating for technical sportswear, leather and paper, among other things

Laura Fazzini

Laura FazziniGiornalista

6 dicembre 2023

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At the end of November, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) published a preview of its new opinion on the two most important perfluoroalkyl substances (PFS), which are toxic to humans and the environment: PFOA, a substance used in waterproofing coatings for textiles, leather, paper and other materials, has been declared a carcinogen, removing any possible doubt about its danger to the environment and to humans. A fact that affects thousands of people who have been drinking and breathing PFAS in Italy for decades.

"PFOA has been classified as 'carcinogenic to humans' (Group 1) on the basis of 'sufficient' evidence of cancer in experimental animals and 'strong' mechanistic evidence in exposed humans.” So begins the IARC summary document to be published in issue 135 of the agency's forthcoming monograph.

The new study comes after an initial listing of PFOA in IARC category 2b, which groups "possible carcinogens,” and thus explains the decision to place it in group 1.

The evidence of cancer in experimental animals was "sufficient" because an increased incidence of an appropriate combination of benign and malignant neoplasms was observed in both sexes of a single species in a Good Laboratory Practice (GLP) study. Thirty world experts worked for almost a decade to reach this opinion, which is disrupting the lives of those exposed to PFOA in drinking water in the Veneto region and those living near the Alexandria chemical plant who still breathe it.

The fear of the exposed population

The opinion comes as a major environmental trial is underway against the Italian PFOA producer Miteni, which is accused of poisoning water over an area of 600 square kilometres. The provinces of Padua, Vicenza and Verona have been waiting for this trial for weeks, following the meeting of 30 world experts at the IARC headquarters in Lyon in mid-November.

For the more than 180,000 people who, since 2017, have known for certain that they have high levels of PFOA in their blood, thanks to the health checks carried out by the Veneto Region, this is "bombshell news, but also a huge boulder. Reading it in black and white is different. Now everything changes," commented many residents of the red zone with the highest PFAS exposure on social media.

PFOA was produced by the Vicenza-based company Miteni and released into the environment and groundwater recharge for more than 60 years, contaminating the drinking water of 350,000 people. Today, more than 10 years after the first PFAS emergency, dozens of inhabitants of the most affected area, Lonigo, are still not connected to the aqueduct and are using groundwater containing thousands of nanograms of PFAS.

In the province of Alessandria, where Solvay Solexis continues to produce PFAS and has been using PFOA for decades, the reaction of the population is just as strong. “Now that this compound has been officially declared a carcinogen, they have to protect us, the institutions have a duty to monitor our blood and our health,” demand the residents of the suburb of Spinetta Marengo, home to the only active PFAS production site in Italy.

PFAS, thousands of people in Piedmont drank contaminated water, says Greenpeace

For them, PFOA comes from the air; for decades it has been emitted from the more than 70 chimneys of the industrial site, contaminating the soil and the Bormida river through Solvay's effluent. A first warning had been issued by Europe directly to the Belgian multinational in 2007. In fact, the Perforce study had looked for PFOA in Europe's seven main rivers, and the Po was found to be the most polluted, with 200 nanograms per litre at the estuary.

"Analyses of the production and use of PFOA lead us to believe that the Solvay Solexis plant is the source of the contamination of the Po, I urge you to investigate," wrote the study's signatory, Michael MacLachlan, to the company, which responded by saying that in the absence of limits it was not breaking any laws. Limits for this discharge would only come into force in October 2021 with a regional law, but there is still no national law.

Despite the shutdown, Solvay Solexis said that PFOA was still present in the soil and air in 2013, as confirmed by Arpa Piemonte (the regional authority on the environmental protection) in a document published on its website. At the moment, no health restrictions have been imposed by either the city or the region. One wonders, however, what will change now that it is certain that a carcinogen is present in the soil of the people of Alessandria and has been found in the blood of some of them?

International reactions, PFOA like asbestos

A few days before the publication of this important opinion, the Danish environmental doctor Philippe Grandjean was heard in the Miteni trial in the main courtroom of the Court of Vicenza. After explaining how for decades manufacturers had failed to publish health studies on PFOA proving its toxicity, the doctor equated this compound with asbestos because of its persistence.

Asbestos itself was identified as a carcinogen in the 1980s, after dozens of studies commissioned by its manufacturers had already denounced its dangers. The effects of asbestos, which occur directly in organs such as the pleura surrounding the lungs, also manifest themselves many years after exposure (30 to 40 years on average). PFOA and the entire PFOA family are endocrine disruptors, i.e. they damage the hormone system and cause various types of tumours and diseases.

The workers who produced it for decades at the Miteni factory in Vicenza had the highest levels in their blood, up to 90,000 nanograms per millilitre, while the Solvay workers who used Miteni's PFOA, measured by the company doctor in Vicenza, had 50,000 in their blood. With regard to the doctor in question, last October the court in Vicenza decided to dismiss a manslaughter case concerning the deaths of some Miteni workers. The reason given was the lack of certainty between exposure to PFAS and tumours. Now, with this new international opinion, everything is in doubt.

This article was translated by Kompreno with the support of DeepL.

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