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The Sticky Science of Non-Stick Chemicals: Forty Years of Research and (In)Action on Fluorinated Compounds

Sat, August 20, 8:30 to 10:10am, TBA


What is the relationship between scientific discovery -- the establishment and development of a research base on a given topic -- and social discovery -- the growing awareness of a hazard, disease, or problem by a range of social actors? Understandings of environmental change and governance typically both assume and challenge the relationship between expert knowledge (or scientific awareness) and action (or social and regulatory awareness). In this paper, we explore this relationship by examining the social and scientific discoveries of a contested class of chemicals. Per- and polyfluorinated compounds (PFAS) are widely used industrial compounds containing chemical chains of carbon and fluorine that are persistent, bioaccumulative, and toxic for people and the environment. Although industry and regulatory scientists have studied the exposure and toxicity concerns of these chemicals for decades, and several contaminated communities have documented health concerns as a result of their high levels of exposure, PFAS use remains ubiquitous in a huge range of consumer and industrial products. This paper draws on mixed method qualitative research to track the uneven social and scientific discovery of the dangers associated with PFAS chemicals, highlighting scientific developments, regulatory awareness and programs, and the relatively limited social discovery and public awareness of these chemicals. We argue that, despite a significant history of industry scientific discovery documenting exposure and toxicity concerns, the academic, regulatory and social discoveries of PFASs have been more recent and limited, due to discrete and frequently confidential industry scientific discoveries that only came to light through litigation.