About 700 PFAS-contaminated sites have been identified across the US while those exposed to enough chemicals can face devastating health consequences
In 2002, the French multinational Saint-Gobain boosted production of chemically weatherproofed fabrics that it produced in its Merrimack, New Hampshire, plant. Soon after, serious health problems began hitting residents living near the facility.
The Merrimack Citizens for Clean Water (MCCW) advocacy group says people there suffer from high levels of cancer, cardiovascular issues, autoimmune disorders, kidney disease and developmental disorders. That includes an alarming number of children facing rare and aggressive cancers, said MCCW’s Laurene Allen, who lives in the city of about 30,000 that sits an hour north of Boston.
Residents suspected Teflon and other PFAS used in Sant-Gobain’s fabrics were to blame, and testing appears to confirm that: officials have identified 34 PFAS in concentrations as high as 70,000 parts per trillion (ppt) throughout a 65-mile area around the plant. New Hampshire’s groundwater limit is 12ppt.
MCCW has been pushing for Saint-Gobain to fund a clean-up, but Allen said the state and company’s responses have been inadequate. The situation, she added, amounts to “insanity”.
“Over and over people are asking: ‘Why was this allowed to happen?’ ‘Why does it continue to happen?’” Allen said.
But similar fights are now playing out around America as residents, environmental groups and officials at all levels are confronted with a grim and ever-growing public health crisis fueled by PFAS, known as “forever chemicals” for their immense longevity in the environment.
Throughout 2019 and now in 2020, the staggering scope of the new American health crisis has come sharply into focus. About 700 PFAS-contaminated sites have been identified nationwide, while more than 110 million people may now be drinking contaminated water. More recent testing found high PFAS levels in drinking water in 34 major US cities. Some researchers say nearly every source of surface water in the country is contaminated.
Recent tests revealed dangerous levels in rain, a range of foods and sewage sludge that farmers spread on cropland as fertilizer. It is estimated that PFAS are in 99% of Americans’ blood, and the chemicals have been found in Arctic animals.
In short, “it’s nearly impossible to escape contamination”, said David Andrews, senior scientist for the Environmental Working Group.
“The more you try to study it, the more you try to understand how widespread this contamination is, the more you realize how the entire globe and all of our drinking water and food systems are contaminated,” he said.
PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, are a class of about 5,000 fluorinated compounds whose nickname as “forever chemicals” comes because they don’t naturally break down and there is no known way to destroy them. The ubiquitous compounds are used to make products water- and stain-resistant, and are commonly found in Teflon, Scotchgard, waterproof rain gear, dental floss, eyeliner, food packaging, carpeting, firefighting foam and a wide range of textiles.
The chemicals are particularly dangerous because they are water soluble and easily move through the environment. Landfills, military bases and industrial sites frequently contaminate soil from which the chemicals move into groundwater and aquifers, then pollute nearby wells or municipal drinking sources.
“When they’re released into world there’s no standard environmental process that breaks them down – they don’t break apart in sunlight or heat,” Andrews said. “They mostly just disperse, and they can build up in concentration, especially in water supplies.”
Those exposed to enough PFAS can face devastating and diverse health consequences. The chemicals are linked to issues that include a variety of cancers, thyroid disorders, kidney disease, autoimmune disruptions, liver disease, high cholesterol, developmental problems in fetuses, Parkinson’s disease, bone disease and more
Though some parts of the federal government and chemical companies deny that PFAS are responsible for health problems, a wave of independent, academic and government research in recent years contradicts that claim.
In the largest epidemiological study ever conducted, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 2012 found a probable link to six diseases afflicting West Virginia residents who were exposed to high levels of PFAS in their drinking water. The culprit was a nearby DuPont chemical plant. Though chemical companies claim it isn’t medically proven that PFAS have caused any deaths, thousands of people poisoned by the compounds have died from diseases linked to them.
It’s clear that PFAS are “as a class harmful to so many parts of the body”, said Sonya Lunder of the Sierra Club.
“The chemicals are uniquely problematic because they don’t break down in any meaningful way and take up a long residence in the human body … and the scope of the damages it causes are pretty unusual and unprecedented,” she added.
Chemical companies have introduced new generations of PFAS that they claim are safer and less accumulative in the environment, but recent testing has found them to be as dangerous and perhaps more mobile than the older chemicals.
Still, PFAS production continues unabated. Those calling for a ban charge that the Trump administration is putting chemical companies’ financial interests first – Chemours, DuPont’s PFAS arm, recorded $6.6bn in revenues last year.
Donald Trump has threatened to veto the PFAS Action Act, which the House passed with bipartisan support in January. Among other provisions, the act would require the EPA to limit two types of PFAS discharges in drinking water and emissions, place a five-year moratorium on new PFAS production and authorize hundreds of millions of dollars for clean-up.
The federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry in 2017 recommended dropping the “minimal risk level” from 70ppt to 12ppt for some PFAS chemicals after finding that greater exposure “could be dangerous for sensitive populations like infants and breastfeeding mothers”.
However, the Trump administration spiked the report, fearing a “public relations nightmare” and increased cleanup costs for the federal government. The advisory level remains at 70ppt.
States such as Washington, New York and New Hampshire have banned some products made with PFAS, while Michigan and New Jersey have lowered drinking water limits. But states are facing criticism for only lowering limits for the two most common varieties of PFAS. That leaves the rest of the nearly 5,000 chemicals in their class unaccounted for.
But more legislation is expected to be approved in 2020 as governments are facing mounting pressure to act in a meaningful way, Andres said. “At some point there’s going to be a backlash, and I think we’re starting to see that now.”