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Michigan Professor Looks For Environmental Justice In Federal PFAS Guidance

Brett Dahlberg

A Michigan State University philosophy professor is on a federal committee charged with drafting guidance for doctors about a group of chemicals called PFAS.

Kevin Elliott, who holds an array of positions at MSU, acknowledged that philosophy is not the first discipline that comes to mind for most people when thinking about who should be guiding policy around per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, which have been linked to cancer and developmental problems.

But Elliott said chemistry and philosophy go together. His job on the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine panel is to think about how PFAS chemicals have disparate impacts on different groups of people.

“It’s important to think about the social context in which science is being done,” said Elliott. “There’s a growing recognition of the importance of thinking about environmental justice: the ways in which some groups may be disproportionately affected by environmental exposures.”

PFAS are common in firefighting foams and some household products, but it’s a huge family of chemicals, and exactly how much PFAS could present a health problem is still unclear, Elliott said. 

“There is a lot of uncertainty. There are so many different PFAS compounds out there and not a lot of information about the health effects at particular exposure levels.”

“It’s important to have a committee like this to develop principles for clinical evaluation and testing despite significant scientific uncertainty,” he said.

Elliott said race and economic class can make some people more vulnerable to PFAS exposure than others.

“Not everyone is in the same boat. Some people -- because of where they live, or their jobs, or any number of reasons -- are subject to different levels of exposure,” he said.

Those disparate groups can also benefit from targeted communication efforts, said Elliott. “Not everyone goes to a doctor’s office with the same frequency.”

The federal group’s guidance, due out in 2022, will eventually help doctors and public health officials decide how to talk to people about the risks of PFAS exposure and when people should be tested for the chemicals.

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