Maybe you have heard about PFAS (pronounced PEA-fass), a class of chemicals found in many household products as well as in the foam used by firefighters. These supervillains are invulnerable — they take decades or even centuries to degrade — and they cause cancer and other terrible diseases.
|Time to demand an end to PFAS contamination!
Sufficiently freaked out? Don’t stop reading…help is on the way! Federal, state, and county governments — prodded by advocates — are finally developing a system for regulating these bad boys.
Detlef Knappe and the Cape Fear River
|Industry and recreation on Cape Fear River
Let’s take a look at one example of how industrial interests, local officials, scientists, and journalists have handled a serious contamination problem in one region. This is the case of the Chemours Chemical Company and the Cape Fear River in North Carolina. The Cape Fear River feeds into a watershed that provides drinking water for 1.5 million people.
Nearly 10 years ago, North Carolina State University environmental engineer Detlef Knappe conducted research finding that the Cape Fear River was heavily contaminated with PFAS and other industrial chemicals.
In 2016 he reported these findings in scientific articles and he wrote directly to local and state officials about the problem. But his persistent efforts yielded zero returns until Vaughn Hagerty, a reporter at the Wilmington-Star News, published an article in 2017 on Knappe’s report.
Finally shamed into action, local agencies discovered that the source of the chemicals was a manufacturing plant owned by Chemours, an offshoot of DuPont.
It turns out that Chemours and DuPont had been dumping GenX, a very powerful chemical in the PFAS family, into the river for over 30 years.
"This 'emerging contaminant' GenX has actually been in the water since 1980. It's mystifying why Chemours, and before that DuPont, wasn't more careful in capturing chemicals in waste streams. For Fortune 500 companies, the cost of proper wastewater treatment and air pollution control would not be a big burden." Dr. Detlef Knappe
The state was finally able to pressure Chemours to stop polluting the Cape Fear River, which is great. However, the chemical contamination problem is far from solved for North Carolina water drinkers. Subsequent studies by Knappe and colleagues have identified PFAS and other industrial pollutants in many waterways in the state.
What are PFAS? A quick overview
What are the key characteristics of this class of chemicals?
- They are human-made substances that degrade very slowly, hence their nickname “forever” chemicals.
- They are used to repel water, dirt, and grease in many common products.
- They LEACH (not LEECH) into water, air, and dust.
- They enter the human body where they accumulate and cause various illnesses.
How, specifically, do PFAS get into our bodies? The most common way is through our drinking water.
“Based on our tests and new academic research that found PFAS widespread in rainwater, EWG scientists now believe PFAS is likely detectable in all major water supplies in the U.S., almost certainly in all that use surface water. Source: Environmental Working Group
We ingest PFAS in other ways besides drinking contaminated water. For instance, PFAS are also used to coat the paper in fast food packaging. The chemicals leach into the hamburger and fries that we then scarf down. We also ingest PFAS when we eat fish that have lived in contaminated water, and when we eat fruits and vegetables irrigated with contaminated water. Children may absorb PFAS by crawling around and playing on PFAS-treated carpet. Nursing mothers exposed to PFAS pass along the chemicals to their infants, although the CDC considers the benefits of breastfeeding to outweigh the hazards of PFAS exposure.
|Spraying kids with firefighting foam at community picnics…not a great idea
Workers involved in processing PFAS and PFAS-containing materials may be exposed by inhaling them or absorbing them through their skin. Evidence compiled by the CDC found, for example, that a sample of workers at the 3M Company had nearly 1000 times as much PFOA (a very harmful category of PFAS) in their blood than did a community sample.
A major source of PFAS contamination is the firefighting foam often used on military bases and at commercial airports. A Department of Defense report released in March 2020 showed that many bases and surrounding communities are contaminated with PFAS.
The effects of PFAS exposure are extraordinarily concerning. Studies show links to high cholesterol, ulcerative colitis, thyroid disease, testicular and kidney cancer, and pregnancy-induced hypertension. Scientists have also discovered unusual clusters of serious medical effects in communities with heavily PFAS-contaminated water, many of which are near military bases.
Finally, several recent studies have shown a link between COVID-19 and PFAS, suggesting that PFAS exposure may increase the risk of contracting infectious diseases like COVID-19.
Industry response (or lack thereof)
For the past 60 years, chemical manufacturers have covered up evidence of the human and environmental impacts of PFAS. US industries have stopped manufacturing some dangerous kinds of PFAS but they nevertheless remain in the environment and our bodies because they were made and used domestically for decades, and biodegrade at an infinitesimally slow rate. And some products imported from other countries continue to contain them.
Industry scientists have developed replacement PFAS that they claim have improved safety profiles, but emerging studies suggest that replacement PFAS are similarly dangerous, equally persistent, and even more mobile than the older ones.
State governments step up
Many states have begun to move aggressively to limit the manufacture and use of PFAS. One important initiative has been spearheaded by a nonprofit organization called Safer States, which has coordinated advocates, policymakers, scientists, and residents to influence public policy and corporate practices at the state level.
California has stepped up significantly in the last two years, adopting several PFAS-related policies including the following:
- requiring public water systems to monitor for PFAS
- prohibiting the manufacture and sale of PFAS firefighting foam
- banning PFAS from products for children including booster seats, infant carriers, and crib mattresses
- prohibiting manufacturers from labeling products containing PFAS as recyclable or compostable
EPA: MIA on PFAS until last month
In contrast to individual states, the federal government has done little to regulate PFAS, sometimes acting with reckless-seeming disregard for public safety. One of the more shocking examples of this? Plans by the Department of Defense (DOD) to incinerate toxic firefighting foam.
“For years DOD used toxic firefighting foams containing PFAS during drills and fires in bases across the country. PFAS from these foams polluted the soil and water of neighboring communities. Facing multiple lawsuits and billions of dollars in potential liability from past releases, DOD chose to incinerate its unused firefighting foam. However, DOD failed to conduct any environmental review before approving this incineration, bringing into new communities the risk of PFAS emissions and other pollution that are proven to harm public health.” Source: Earthjustice
When Earthjustice and other environmental organizations found out about it through Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests, they sued the DOD to put a halt to this lethal practice.
DOD isn't the only problematic agency. The Environmental Protective Agency’s approval requirements for new chemicals are riddled with loopholes, and companies are often allowed skip notification requirements for PFAS.
Finally, however, on Oct. 18 of this year, the EPA announced steps to study and, to some extent, regulate PFAS. In its roadmap, the EPA described a plan to set drinking water limits on some toxic chemicals, require manufacturers to provide detailed reporting, and designate two of the most well-known PFAS as hazardous under Superfund law.
Marin County still working on disposable foodware ban
In Marin County, several towns have already passed ordinances to ban disposable foodware that contains PFAS. The County is following suit (after lengthy delays caused chiefly by the pandemic). There is currently a draft ordinance under consideration that would apply to all entities selling prepared food, from restaurants and grocery stores to farmers' markets and food trucks. The ordinance has five components:
|These plastic containers’ days are numbered!!
- All takeout disposable foodware (e.g., plates, cups, trays) must be natural-fiber compostable (no bioplastics).
- Reusable foodware and utensils must be used if dining in the facility.
- A charge of $.25 must be made for disposable cups.
- Garbage, recycling, and organics bins must be available.
- Compostable straws and other accessories may be available on request.
The Board of Supervisors just closed the public comment period but if you would like to follow the next steps, subscribe for updates!
What can you do?
Be a careful consumer: You can learn a lot more about PFAS in this excellent but rather technical article. In general, avoid items described as “nonstick”; reduce or eliminate fast food; check beauty product labels for the term “fluoro,” which indicates a fluorinated chemical; and use granular activated carbon or reverse osmosis filters for your drinking water. Oh, and don’t let any firefighters spray your children with foam!
Get some help from your friends: Why should the onus be on the consumer to avoid being poisoned by everyday products we buy in good faith? This month the Center for Environmental Health (CEH) and Clean Production Action (CPA) unveiled a new certification standard for disposable foodware. Their certification helps consumers know which disposable plates and bowls do not contain PFAS and other harmful chemicals.
PFAS-laden rugs are not acceptable!
Be a feisty consumer and advocate: Consumers can also contact brands to tell them to stop using PFAS in their products. IKEA, H&M, and Crate & Barrel are already eliminating highly fluorinated chemicals like PFAS from their product lines. Some restaurant chains like Chipotle and Taco Bell have pledged to remove PFAS from their food packaging. Hold their feet to the fire!Also, demand that local, state, and federal officials do their part! They need to implement stronger protections from PFAS chemicals with more aggressive timelines. Click on this link to tell the EPA to get the lead (and the PFAS) out!
Support advocacy groups: As we have seen, we cannot yet depend on the federal government to take action to protect citizens from these life-threatening substances.
That’s why we need advocacy groups like the Center for Environmental Health, the Environmental Working Group, the Green Science Policy Institute, Earthjustice and other organizations to do the research, tell us what is going on, and put pressure on elected officials! Think about their good works when you figure out your year-end giving in December!
That’s it for this post of the EFM Notebook! Do you have comments on what you’ve read so far? Suggestions for future Notebook topics? Send me your thoughts at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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