This week the EPA announced a new roadmap to research, restrict, and remediate PFAS – a group of industrial “forever chemicals” that have been linked to cancer and are found in our food, water, and even our blood. President Biden is requesting $10bn in the infrastructure bill to address PFAS. But this new attention still falls short of what’s required to confront an unprecedented crisis that affects the health of the entire United States and countless people across the world.
Today, toxic per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are everywhere we’ve thought to look for them. As engineered, these synthetic chemicals glide through air and water with ease, evade all natural processes of decay, and inflict debilitating injuries even at exceedingly low levels of exposure. The petrochemical industry has its fingerprints all over the ubiquity of PFAS, yet that very ubiquity is now being used as an excuse against doing anything about it. PFAS are becoming too toxic to fail.
The EPA’s hyped national PFAS testing strategy bemoans how “impossible” it is for the EPA “to expeditiously understand, let alone address, the risks these substances may pose to human health and the environment.” Overwhelmed by rampant PFAS contamination, the EPA is asking the petrochemical industry to study these chemicals one by one in the hopes of eventually building enough data to regulate them. Yes, one by one. The timeline proposed will take another century (or two) to make its way through the entire family of PFAS, which now number in the thousands.
The manifold ways that PFAS makes a mockery of our regulation of toxins cannot be the end of our ability to prosecute petrochemical malfeasance. Rather, this should be the start to fixing everything that went wrong.
The companies behind PFAS knew about its toxicity for decades, but that knowledge was hidden in corporate archives and subject to shamefully lax government oversight.
When 3M and DuPont learned about alarming patterns of birth defects and cancers in their own workers at PFAS plants in the 1970s and 1980s, both companies smothered the evidence. In the 1970s, the navy and air force looked the other way when they found PFAS migrating off their bases and into nearby communities. By the 1990s, 3M and DuPont both realized that their PFAS operations were polluting municipal drinking water at levels they considered harmful. As revealed by investigative reporting and dramatized in the 2019 film Dark Waters, corporate executives helped destroy the evidence while giving false assurances to residents and regulators alike.
Over the past century, the petrochemical industry had countless opportunities to recognize the dangers of PFAS and install safeguards. Instead, they launched even more PFAS into the world. In defiance of their own internal scientific appraisals of the deadly effects of PFAS, 3M and DuPont integrated these chemicals into a widening array of industrial ingredients, firefighting equipment, and consumer goods. Incredibly, both companies also disposed PFAS waste into watersheds providing drinking water to more than 20 million Americans and irrigation to farms in 13 states.
Over the past 50 years, 3M and DuPont manufactured more than enough PFAS to contaminate the drinking water of every single American. PFAS was sold to plastics plants, carpet and shoe factories, and oil and gas drilling sites across the US, where it was routinely discarded by the ton into the environment. Some industries even endorsed the distribution of PFAS-laden waste to farmers as a soil supplement.
Now worried about impending liability, the petrochemical industry and the military are busy torching stockpiles of PFOA and PFOS (the two PFAS compounds closest to being regulated) despite growing concern that burning merely redistributes these inflammable toxins, especially into the poor communities of color where waste incinerators cynically base their operations. As the US and Europe move towards regulating some PFAS chemicals, the petrochemical industry is moving PFAS operations to more permissive regimes in Brazil, China, India, and Russia.
Each time the question of containing PFAS came into view, 3M, DuPont, and now Chemours launched a perfluorinated blitzkrieg. They flooded the zone. And looking back, a rather demented product defense strategy becomes apparent: total contamination. Rather than controlling PFAS toxicity, the petrochemical industry universalized it.
By the time sickened industrial workers and farmers demanded action, lawyers pried open the corporate archive, and the EPA started issuing voluntary guidelines for a handful of PFAS compounds, it was almost too late to clean up the mess. The poison was out of the bag. An EPA review released this week identified more than 120,000 sites in the US alone that are probably contaminated with PFAS.
There is no longer any population or place on earth untouched by PFAS contamination. We are living through a toxic experiment with no control group. This alarming reality trips up the comparative methods typically used to study toxicity and public health. It is also becoming a rather shameless legal argument in courtrooms across the country.
When PFAS was discovered in my hometown of Bennington, Vermont, the plastics factory that emitted these chemicals for decades landed on a novel defense: that PFAS are so pervasive that it’s impossible to determine who is responsible. Residential trash with trace amounts of PFAS and the world at large, the company argued, were the real perpetrators of our PFAS troubles, not the plastics factory that accepted delivery of PFAS by the truckload for more than 30 years.
And now American Chemistry Council lobbyists and defense attorneys for the petrochemical industry are hard at work nominating PFAS contamination to the welcoming committee of a brave new world of total contamination. It’s a planetary future they cast as inevitable, surprisingly democratic, and without any liable author. According to their victim-blaming PR campaign, anyone who has worn a Gore-Tex rain jacket or thrown away a McDonalds wrapper is just as guilty as the companies that illegally hid the toxicity of PFAS while spewing millions of pounds of this poison into our lives.
PFAS are everywhere, but this disconcerting fact should not distract us from the petrochemical operations holding the smoking gun – smoking, in no small part, because they are still emitting PFAS. The omnipresence of PFAS does not lessen the threat they pose to our health, but it does mean we need bolder ways of prosecuting these environmental crimes against humanity.
Yet instead of toughening regulation of the petrochemical industry, the EPA and many state agencies are throwing their hands up at the sheer ubiquity of the problem.
Regulatory agencies are proposing natural “background levels” for a synthetic chemical conjured up a mere 75 years ago – in effect giving tacit approval for the history of gross negligence that got us here. That’s not all. The agencies shift blame for this predicament to residents by listing household items containing trace amounts of PFAS alongside factories that emitted it by the ton annually, as if those are equivalent sources; agencies refrain from sampling groundwater near industries suspected of using PFAS; agencies stack science committees with industry lobbyists while putting up roadblocks for independent scientists to participate; agencies applaud a pyrrhic victory of finally deciding to regulate PFOA and PFOS some 20 years after they learned about their toxicity while the petrochemical industry happily churns out a witches’ brew of new unregulated PFAS chemicals; and agencies endorse incineration as a PFAS disposal method while acknowledging that there is no evidence that combustion destroys these flameproof chemicals. And, of course, they make grand commitments to keep studying the problem in the hopes of taking action in, oh, a decade or so.
The point is clear: by way of regulatory indifference, delay, and now despair, responsibility for the toxicity of forever chemicals is shifting from the corporations who profited from them to the communities who must now live with them.
All is not lost. While PFAS inspires paralysis in state agencies, people living on the frontlines of this crisis – in rural towns next to military bases, working-class neighborhoods adjacent to plastics factories, communities of color near incinerators burning PFAS – insist we do everything we can, now. They demand an immediate stop to all releases of PFAS. They demand we compel the industry and the military to start cleaning up sources of PFAS contamination. They demand we ban PFAS as a family of chemicals, not only in the US but across the world. They demand we pass the PFAS Accountability Act, legislation that insists manufacturers retain liability for all the damage PFAS inflicts after they leave the factory. And they demand we hold polluters fully accountable for the decades of damage they’ve done.
These communities insist polluters pay for water filtration systems for every affected home and business, medical monitoring for the lifetime of worry that people in polluted communities now carry, and independent scientific monitoring for the generations that PFAS will haunt affected areas.
The EPA and state agencies must follow their lead. We cannot retreat into a broken system of indifference and carefully planned inaction. Nor can the ubiquity of PFAS become an excuse for those that profitably manufactured this mess. Any further delay would be an epic dereliction of duty.