Hey, guess what? Large corporations have knowingly polluted the environment with chemicals that have serious side effects, including birth defects and death. And it’s been going on for decades.
What’s new, right? Well, a few awful things. These toxic chemicals have recently been found in orange juice hundreds of times above federal limits and at staggering levels in fish. They even found it in period underwear.
The chemicals are known as Per- and Polyfluorinated Substances, but you’ve probably seen them referred to as PFAS or “forever chemicals” on the news or online over the past few years. There are about 14,700 different varieties of PFAS, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
They are highly toxic chemicals that exist in your water, home, and in most people’s bodies. They have also been found all over the world in food and wildlife. And they are nearly impossible to get rid of, hence the name.
But these chemicals and the dangers they pose are not new.
PFAS were invented in the 1930s and for the last 70 years have been used to manufacture thousands of products we use daily, such as clothing, furniture, adhesives, food packaging, non-stick pans, and even electrical wiring. The great thing about them is that they are resistant to heat, oils, stains, grease and water, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
That’s why those fried eggs don’t stick to your Teflon pan and rain doesn’t absorb into your jacket.
While they do offer pros, there are some pretty horrific downsides.
“There have been all sorts of toxicity studies over decades that have shown that if you continue to drink PFAS contaminated water, or you continue to be exposed to it, or you continue to breathe it, then over time it will bioaccumulate in your body and you could develop serious health problems,” said Scott Wilson, the CEO of Regenesis, a company specializing in solving environmental problems. “However, most people will have some level of PFAS in their body.”
PFAS are usually in such low concentration that it’s not a problem, according to Wilson. But in large concentrations, PFAS chemicals can cause certain cancers, liver damage, decreased fertility, and increased risk of asthma and thyroid disease, among other things, according to a Harvard analysis.
The dangers of PFAS have been known since the 1950s, according to the Environmental Working Group (EWG), a Washington DC-based environmental advocacy group. EWG combed decades of internal memos, studies and other company documents of two companies responsible for a majority of PFAS pollution, 3M and DuPont, noting that they had also hidden their findings from employees.
Both companies have been sued and are currently involved in a series of multibillion-dollar lawsuits. The Devil We Know, an investigative documentary was released in 2018 about how DuPont knowingly dumped 1.7 million pounds of PFAS in the water of Parkersburg, West Virginia, between 1951 and 2003. A feature film about the same subject was released a year later.
Where are PFAS found?
Here’s the scary part: PFAS are found in air, rain, soil and water.
According to a detailed EWG contamination map, they’ve been found at nearly 3000 sites in the United States. “Forever chemicals” are present in all 50 states and territories, especially prevalent in California, Colorado, Alabama, the Carolinas, Michigan, Massachusetts and New Jersey.
“DuPont and 3M are the main producers of the chemical domestically,” said Wilson. “They then supply hundreds, if not thousands, of factories and other manufacturers across the country. That’s one reason it’s so widespread in our water supply.”
The map takes data from state and municipal water testing records, including military bases, airports and other areas of interest.
One study found PFAS in the blood of polar bears in the Arctic Circle as far back as 1998. That’s because PFAS can travel in ocean currents and have been found worldwide.
How did they get into the environment and our water supply?
This can happen in several ways.
Wilson said that factories often emit PFAS plumes into the air and, in some cases, have dumped it into local lakes and rivers. The hazardous PFAS waste has also seeped from landfills into groundwater, which then finds its way to our drinking water.
This is typically how a lot of industrial chemicals reach our water supplies. But there are other ways that might surprise you.
“What a lot of people aren’t fully aware of is how the military and airports use a special foam that contains PFAS when they do firefighting drills,” said Wilson. “Almost every military base and airport use PFAS to train and have done for decades.”
Where does all the foam go next? They just wash it away.
The Department of Defense has contacted thousands of farms close to military bases to inform them of possible contamination, according to a DoD report. But it may be too late. Studies have shown that PFAS has been found in livestock and vegetables.
Are they still being produced?
Manufacturers are voluntarily phasing out the worst forever chemicals in the U.S., but some are still in limited use. Despite the downturn in production, PFAS chemicals can still contaminate fruits, vegetables, humans and other products because they remain in the ecosystem for decades.3M announced plans late last year to end all manufacturing of PFAS by 2025. DuPont, the other leading manufacturer of PFAS, said that it would stop producing the most harmful types of PFAS and instead manufacture a less toxic version that doesn’t sustain in the environment for as long, according to its website.
Should you be worried?
Yes. Studies have shown that PFAS can increase the risk of kidney cancer for people with high exposure, according to a National Cancer Institute report. The National Laboratory of Medicine has noted a link to thyroid problems.
PFAS can also affect the reproductive system and child development.
What’s the government doing about it?
The government is behind the curve in solving this problem. But last year, the EPA passed a bunch of new rules that should help curb any future use, according to expert legal analysis.
PFAS will be designated as a hazardous substance, meaning manufacturers must notify the EPA if more than a pound of it is released in more than 24 hours. Failure to do so is a criminal offense.
The designation will also make it easier for the EPA to order companies to clean up the sites, which can run into tens and hundreds of millions of dollars. The EPA also proposed designating PFAS as a containment candidate in drinking water, meaning treatment facilities would have to absorb the possible high cost of treating it before sending water to customers. The last rule will ask states to enforce provisions in the Clean Water Act prohibiting the dumping of hazardous chemicals in waterways.
Are there any more solutions?
There are a few solutions to the PFAS problem. One was discovered by an environmental chemist at York University in Canada. The chemist simply low-boiled the PFAS molecules alongside two compounds. The PFAS molecule fell apart.
The method is a good way to destroy PFAS once it’s been pulled out of contaminated water or soil.
But how do they get the water out of the ground?
“The military wants to pump the water out of the ground and filter it, then put it back,” said Wilson. “That will create an enormous carbon footprint and will probably take 40 to 60 years.”
Wilson said that his team at Regenesis has developed a type of filter that collects the PFAS at the source, meaning pumping the water out isn’t necessary. They propose pouring milled carbon the size of red blood cells into the aquifer, which is where groundwater flows. That turns the polluted aquifer into a huge purifying filter – similar to how people use Britta filters at home. The PFAS then sticks to the carbon filter, allowing water to pass through.
The filter will last decades, according to Regenesis. If needed, more filters can be added.
What can you do about it?
While studies are still working out how to remove PFAS from people, reducing your exposure is the most efficient way to avoid allowing new PFAS into your body.
“You can get a thing called point-of-use filters,” said Wilson. “They are filters you can put on your spigot at home. It uses charcoal to take the PFAS out of the water.”