After decades of cover-ups, so-called “forever chemicals” are finally getting the attention they deserve. But will it be enough to drive significant change in how America regulates a widely used class of toxic chemicals?
Perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are known as “forever chemicals” because they don’t break down due to natural causes. Human exposure to high levels of PFAS is associated with an increased risk of certain cancers and can cause serious birth defects.
These chemicals travel through the environment without degrading and instead build up in the food and water supply. Everywhere that scientists have looked for PFAS, they have found them.
Despite the obvious long-term dangers, these chemicals are subject to little regulation.
Dark Waters Shines a Light on DuPont’s Dangerous and Deceptive Use of Forever Chemicals
A new film, Dark Waters, which opened in select theaters on Nov. 22, tells the story of Rob Bilott, the corporate lawyer turned truth-seeker who first broke the news that big chemical companies had knowingly been poisoning workers for decades.
Dark Waters stars actor and environmental activist Mark Ruffalo as Bilott, who began investigating pollution on a West Virginia farm as a favor for his grandmother. As Bilott put together the pieces, he discovered that DuPont had been knowingly dumping toxic chemicals that were seeping into the water supply.
The most frightening aspect of his discovery was that DuPont knew people would be harmed by PFAS, but they dumped the chemicals anyway.
‘‘I started seeing a story,’’ Bilott told the New York Times, about his investigation into DuPont Company documents. ‘‘I may have been the first one to actually go through them all. It became apparent what was going on: They had known for a long time that this stuff was bad.’’
DuPont Profited as Workers Suffered
PFAS are incorporated into thousands of consumer products, including cosmetics, non-stick frying pans, and raincoats. They were also used in firefighting foam, which was required to be used by most military and civilian airports for more than 50 years.
With so many commercial and industrial applications for PFAS, companies like DuPont and 3M were loath to stop production, regardless of the dangers. DuPont employees that worked at the company’s Washington Works plant — where these chemicals were produced — started getting sick with something they called “Teflon flu,” and some of their children were being born with birth defects.
‘‘I was shocked,’’ Bilott said after discovering evidence of DuPont’s behavior in their corporate records. ‘‘It was the kind of stuff you always heard about happening, but you never thought you’d see written down.’’
Ruffalo Testifies Before Congress About Making Companies Pay
On November 19, Mark Ruffalo testified before the Environment Subcommittee of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform at a hearing about forever chemicals. Ruffalo was joined by Scott Faber of the Environmental Working Group (EWG) and Mark Favors, a U.S. Army veteran and member of the Fountain Valley Clean Water Coalition.
Over the year, the subcommittee has been investigating the PFAS contamination crises. They called a hearing because these dangerous chemicals are still not being regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Ruffalo spoke clearly about how wrong this is:
“In America, it falls to us – ordinary people – to prove that these chemicals are toxic before the chemical is regulated by our government. That’s simply backwards. It’s the companies that make billions of dollars producing these chemicals, not the rest of us, who should be required to prove their products are safe.”
As for who should bear the burden of any new regulations, Ruffalo did not mince words:
“The companies that made billions of dollars producing chemicals they knew were building up in our blood and knew were toxic but failed to tell anyone – failed to tell their workers, failed to tell their neighbors, failed to tell their regulators.”
As Ruffalo noted, DuPont and others had been aware of the potential danger of forever chemicals for decades. Based on their own science, they had an opportunity to warn people, but they chose instead to profit off these chemicals and leave American families to shoulder the horrific consequences.
Veterans and firefighters and their families have been particularly hard hit because of the extensive use of PFAS in firefighting foam. Mark Favors told the committee that 16 members of his family have been diagnosed with cancer who resided in PFAS-contaminated areas. He said:
“We are struggling to obtain justice and accountability for our family members and their neighbors-dead or suffering from cancer and other diseases after firefighting foam (AFFF) containing toxic Perfluorinated chemicals (PFAS) from nearby Peterson Air Force Base (AFB) contaminated their drinking & ground water for decades; which began in the early 1970s, remaining unbeknownst to the public until 2016.”
Favor’s story is so sad, but unfortunately, there are hundreds of military bases around the country where these toxic chemicals are seeping into the groundwater. Because it has taken a long time to warn the public, the number of people affected by PFAS-associated cancer is completely unknown.
Is Congress Ready to Act on PFAS?
On November 20, the House Energy and Commerce Committee passed the PFAS Action Act of 2019 (H.R. 535). The bill, which would allow the EPA to designate per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances as hazardous substances under Superfund law, will now go to the House floor for consideration.
There is also language in the National Defense Authorization Act of 2020 (H.R. 2500) that would discontinue the use of firefighting foam within the next few years. Currently, though, that language is not included in the Senate’s version of the bill.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has indicated that the PFAS language must be included in order for the House to bring the bill to a vote. Hopefully, Pelosi’s stand will be taken by legislators on both sides of the aisle, and Congress will be able to pass the much-needed legislation.
The long-term risks of forever chemicals cannot be overstated. If Congress doesn’t act now, and the EPA continues to drag its feet, then the public will have no choice but to continue poisoning itself.
Dark Waters was released Nov. 22 in select theaters.