It’s now well understood that a family of man-made chemicals known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are toxic environmental contaminants. Worse? They are everywhere.
Used to make a range of products — including firefighting foam, non-stick cookware, and stain-resistant fabrics — PFAS are often called “forever chemicals” because they do not break down naturally over time.
As a result, these compounds remain in the environment for years, if not decades. Some studies have shown the compounds to be present in soil samples anywhere from 5 to 15 years after exercises involving PFAS-containing firefighting foams.
Their prevalence in the food chain is equally concerning, with some research suggesting the compounds may only increase in concentration as one moves up the food chain.
Chemical companies like 3M and Dupont have been manufacturing PFAS for industrial uses since World War II, billowing untold millions of tons of pollutants into the air, ground, and water. In fact, starting in the 1960s, the U.S. Department of Defense even required all branches of the military to use PFAS-containing firefighting foam.
It was only in the early 2000s that the greater public became aware of how harmful the chemicals can be.
Scientists now believe PFAS chemicals are present in the bodies of an estimated 98% of human beings.
Why Is Firefighting Foam Legal?
Recent studies have linked PFAS exposure to several types of cancer, including:
- Neuroendocrine tumors
- Prostate cancer
- Liver cancer
- Breast cancer
- Colorectal cancer (colon and/or rectal cancer)
- Kidney (renal) cancer
- Testicular cancer
- Pancreatic cancer
- Bladder cancer
However, many of these studies target specific types of PFAS — such as perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), the most notorious and widespread such chemical for its decades-long use in the making of Teflon.
While the chemical industry began phasing PFOA out in the early 2000s, its use remains legal in the United States, as does the entire family of chemicals to which it belongs. In many ways, the battlefield has merely shifted.
Whereas legal action used to only target local PFAS hotspots — such as the communities surrounding Dupont factories — they now exist in national or even global arenas.
The political challenge of controlling PFAS pollution at such scales can seem daunting, but the longer governments take to act, the more polluted environments become.
For a sense of scale, it is now estimated that up to 110 million Americans have PFAS-contaminated tap water.
Can the U.S. Ban PFAS?
Little regulatory action on PFAS does not mean there has been no efforts to ban it. In fact, quite the opposite.
Last year, Michigan Rep. Debbie Dingell introduced a bill to Congress that would ban all PFAS from food packaging. While that bill has not been picked up, a separate, more modest one managed to pass in the U.S. House of Representatives.
The bill requires the EPA to set drinking water standards for PFAS chemicals while also labeling them “hazardous substances.” That legal designation would turn most contamination locations in the U.S. into EPA Superfund sites.
When a superfund site is identified, the federal government then allocates resources to investigate and clean up hazardous waste, such as PFAS.
The bill stalled once the Republican-controlled Senate indicated it had no chance of passing. The Trump White House also signaled it would veto the bill, saying it would undermine the EPA’s ability to “evaluate and weigh the available scientific and technical information.”
A Global Comparison: EU Deals With PFAS
In December, the European Union (EU) reached a provisional agreement setting drinking water standards for all PFAS compounds throughout all 28 member nations.
Officials in Sweden, the Netherlands, Germany, and Denmark have taken steps to restrict all PFAS compounds under Europe’s chemical regulations framework, with plans to phase out almost all uses of the substances by 2030. Denmark went so far as to ban all PFAS from food packaging.
There has also been movement on the global front. In 2019, more than 180 countries agreed to ban production and use of the most notorious PFAS chemical, PFOA, as well as its salts and other PFOA-related compounds.
The pact, called the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants, agreed to prohibit the use of firefighting foams containing PFOA or PFOS in training exercises. Participants also moved to ban the production, import, and export of foams containing these chemicals.
While the U.S. was a signee of the Stockholm Convention, it did not participate in the negotiations.
Call It What It Is: A Public Health Crisis
In the face of federal inaction, some states have moved forward on the path to a partial or complete PFAS ban, but these jurisdictions are always beholden to federal oversight and are equally, if not more vulnerable to the vast coffers of lobbyists and private interests.
Unnervingly, the stalemate on PFAS has come to mirror that of the fight to ban asbestos in the early 1990s — while recognizing the danger, legislators spiked a ban at the last minute, kowtowing to private industry.
It should come as no surprise that trade groups and industry lobbyists have had a hand in shaping the legislative debate in the U.S.
According to E&E News, nearly two dozen groups with representatives from Exxon Mobil, Dow Chemical, and Chemours reported lobbying federal officials on issues related to PFAS in late 2018, up from just one company in the previous year.
The uptick in industry lobbying reflects the approval of funding for studies into the human health consequences of PFAS contamination.
Industry Execs Pay Their Way to Immunity
Many financially-backed lobbyist groups have sought to sow doubt about the health implications of PFAS, pointing out that the most rigorous research focused only on PFOA, which was used for decades to make Teflon.
Despite years of litigation and a $670 Million PFAS settlement between Dupont and the residents of a community surrounding a Teflon plant in West Virginia, the handlers of PFAS continue to obscure facts and deflect PFAS science and research.
An executive from 3M, which sold PFOA to Dupont in the early 1950s, even recently told members of Congress:
“[T]he weight of scientific evidence has not established that PFOS, PFOA, or other PFAS cause adverse human health effects.”
Meanwhile, documents published by The Intercept show 3M has been aware of the toxicity of various PFAS compounds for at least 40 years.
PFAS Highlight a Deeply Seeded Political Problem
The political problem, however, may be more difficult to solve than the scientific one. By some accounts, the very agencies whose mission it is to research and protect the environment and human health are captured by the private interests they are meant to be regulating.
Last year, a former top official at the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) went on record claiming she was barred from saying PFAS “caused” disease, and instead was forced by higher-ups to use the term “association” in drawing a connection.
Linda Birnbaum, the former director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and the National Toxicology Program, told The Intercept that the order came from a higher level official within her agency and that it mirrored the Trump’s administration’s own messaging with regards to PFAS.
As someone who studied PFAS for decades, Birnbaum felt she held the authority to declare a causal link between PFAS and disease, which seems reasonable.
Birnbaum told The Intercept:
“In my mind, PFAS causes health effects because you have the same kind of effects reported in multiple studies in multiple populations. You have longitudinal studies showing the same effects in multiple populations done by multiple investigators and you have animal models showing the same impact.”
The Burden of Science
Some public health agencies now argue that the current U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has “veered so far from its foundational mission” that it constitutes “regulatory capture.”
Similarly, the same corporate takeover has plagued the halls of Congress for decades, with trade groups like ALEC and the Chamber of Commerce at times literally writing bills that prevent communities from governing their own environment and health interests.
While the battlefield may have moved away from local PFAS hotspots, the stakes now appear to be higher than ever before.
While those who want only to drink clean water and breathe clear air are short on time and resources, the Goliath that is the chemical industry most certainly is not.