I've been a product liability and toxic tort litigator for over 30 years. Throughout my career, I've often been asked what I think the next "big thing" in that space will be. The question has usually been posed this way: “Paul, what is the next asbestos?” Going into 2024, the answer to that question appears to be “PFAS.”
Perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances are a group of about 14,000 chemicals used in hundreds of everyday products—from fabric protectors, electronics and non-stick pans to foams, tapes and even toilet paper. Because of their extensive and extended use, PFAS is now ubiquitous in the environment. Some scientists contend every person on the planet has been exposed. PFAS are called “forever chemicals” because the properties that make them so useful in consumer products make them persistent in the environment. Science is evolving that suggests they are linked to an increasingly long list of health problems, including obesity, fertility issues and cancer.
But as any toxicologist will tell you, exposure and toxicity does not necessarily equate to human health impact. Only if the dose is sufficient, will exposure to a chemical result in harm. That science is evolving too; but it has not been the focus of the myriad lawsuits that are being filed over PFAS exposure. Asbestos litigation continues because there is a "signature injury" - mesothelioma and asbestosis - which makes the dose determination less important. That is not the case for PFAS exposure, at least based on the existing science. So it will be interesting to see if 2024 sheds new light to answer the question of what the true risks of PFAS are.