“It’s everywhere. It’s toxic. And, it lasts forever.”
These are the properties cited by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) twenty years ago as cause for concern when the risk assessment process for a class of manmade substances known as “forever chemicals” began. Alan Wilson recently filed legal action against the corporations responsible for the widespread contamination of South Carolina’s water supplies with the chemicals called PFAS – or highly fluorinated chemicals – in an effort to have the polluters foot the bill for anticipated regulations that would make filtration mandatory for many of the state’s water systems.
“Despite knowing for decades that PFAS chemicals are toxic, Defendants have misled the public and government regulators by consistently and publicly denying that their PFAS products presented any harm to human health or the environment,” the complaint filed in Richland County noted.
If the term “forever chemicals” seems new, you may be familiar with the class of chemicals for different reasons – or by different names. PFAS- or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances – are common to thousands of consumer products. Their non-stick, stain-resistant, waterproof, and heat-tolerant properties make them desirable as a treatment or coating or component. It is the manufacture of these products – specifically the disposal of industrial waste – which leads to the contamination of water supplies. These chemicals are related to coatings for clothing, textiles, carpet and numerous paper products, personal care products, kitchen implements, food packaging, paints, cleaning products, tech components, and medical necessities like the N95 masks used to protect individuals from Covid-19. There is no comprehensive list since details about the manufacture of consumer products is shielded from disclosure as confidential business information.
Regardless of your familiarity with these chemicals, you can be sure the chemicals are familiar with you. They are found in the blood of nearly every living thing on Earth. Every baby in the United States is born with PFAS already in their tiny bodies.
So far, highly fluorinated chemicals or PFAS remain unregulated by the federal government. However, the current proposal for regulation announced on March 14, 2023 would make it necessary for many of South Carolina’s water distribution systems to use filtration methods to reduce or remove the toxin – a costly endeavor.
Exposure has been linked to several human diseases including kidney and testicular cancer, ulcerative colitis, thyroid disease, pre-eclampsia and medically diagnosed high cholesterol. Those results come from a groundbreaking study conducted between 2005-2013 by the C8 Science Panel. This study examined the blood serum and medical histories of 70,000 residents of the Mid-Ohio Valley – a community suffering high levels of exposure due to its proximity to a DuPont facility where Teflon and numerous other related consumer applications have been manufactured since the 1950s. The study was used to resolve a class action lawsuit brought by residents against the corporation over the contamination of local water supplies. Subsequent scientific studies have provided evidence that exposure promotes chemical changes in the human body even at the lowest levels – and these changes can result in a plethora of issues including endocrine disruption (hormonal problems), developmental and reproductive issues and problems with immunity. Exposure also renders vaccinations ineffective.
Needless to say, the health consequences of exposure are vast for vulnerable individuals.
It is important to note there is no known safe level of exposure. As with cigarette smoking, the effects on the human body vary – some individuals will be more susceptible to the development of disease than others. Some will suffer no ill effects. For vulnerable populations, no amount of exposure is safe. Think of it this way: No one can say for sure whether it is the first cigarette smoked or the 1,000th that tips the scales in favor of the development of lung cancer. It is not easily quantifiable – and the answer would be different from one person to the next. Likewise, an individual’s potential for the development of health effects is largely unpredictable aside from contributing lifestyle or occupational factors.
We do know that plant workers, military personnel and firefighters are at a higher risk for elevated levels of exposure and therefore the development of disease. Firefighters are at a substantially greater risk of occupational exposure because their gear is made with PFAS and until recently so were firefighting foams. This means they are heavily exposed by pathways that do not involve consumer products or drinking water. Dr. Linda Birnbaum, a retired toxicologist who formerly served as the director of the National Institute of Environmental Health, estimated that two-thirds of those employed in the fire service are expected to develop exposure related diseases. According to Birnbaum and other scientists, it is impossible to avoid PFAs but it is possible to limit exposure with informed consumer choices. Another way to significantly curb exposure is through regulations that will reduce and limit the presence of PFAS in water supplies.
There are more than 3,500 derivatives of PFAS. The EPA is looking to set regulations that will address two of the most common – PFOA and PFOS. The EPA’s current health advisory for lifetime exposure to these chemicals is 70 parts per trillion – and sampling results compiled by the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control (SCDHEC)’s Bureau of Water indicate there are no water systems currently exceeding the advisory. However, the proposed maximum contaminant level for water is just four parts per trillion. If that sticks, many water systems would be forced to reduce levels with filtration systems – which would be tremendously costly.
The lawsuit filed last week in Richland County against DuPont, Chemours (a DuPont spin-off), 3M and Corteva is an effort to shift that cost onto the polluters.
“I’m a firm believer in the free market, but when companies knowingly violate the law and harm South Carolinians in the process, there deserve to be consequences,” Wilson said. “By filing this suit, we’re fighting to protect our valuable natural resources and keep South Carolinians safe.”
A study conducted by SCDHEC found contamination from PFAS is ubiquitous in South Carolina – including soil and sediment, groundwater, surface water and biota.
HIGHLY FLOURINATED HISTORY …
Aside from the attributes of convenience, the signature characteristic of PFAS is their unbreakable carbon fluorine bond – which does not degrade easily or by natural means. This is the very reason the chemicals were developed. In the years between World War I and World War II, American scientists were warning Franklin Roosevelt that Germany could soon be in possession of a nuclear bomb. This prompted the covert operation known as the Manhattan Project. The production of indestructible components was fundamental to making the bomb. The bonding of carbon and fluorine was no easy task. Once the process to do so safely was developed, the technology was applied to government concerns – and to industrial enterprises.
This led to the manufacture of Teflon and Scotchguard and thousands of other such applications that quickly made their way into the market and into the hands and homes of virtually everyone – without sufficient safety testing or meaningful regulations. This origin story is fully documented in the 2019 Aeon article “Time-bombing the Future” by Dr. Rebecca Altman.
The 3M company was the first to address the contamination issue with the voluntary phaseout of Scotchguard in its original form in the early 2000s – a decision prompted by worker studies indicating an increased exposure-related risk of the development of cancer and other health problems. Other corporations did not follow suit. DuPont, for one, took over the production of a specific PFAS compound formerly obtained from 3M and increased production dramatically in anticipation of a day when they would no longer be able to do so free from government regulation.
The contamination of water supplies went unnoticed in part because PFAS have no smell or taste or color to reveal their presence. They are detectable only through laboratory testing – and that testing was developed exclusively by and for industry.
In the Mid-Ohio Valley, it was the mysterious annihilation of an entire herd of cattle that led to the discovery of PFAS in water supplies in the late 1990s. A family of ranchers, the Tennant family, sold a portion of their land to DuPont for use as a landfill. Unbeknownst to them, the corporation was trying to hide the means of disposal they had used for PFAS for decades by digging up a landfill on the banks of the Ohio River and relocating the sludge to the recently acquired property. Within a few years’ time, every one of the Tennant’s cattle died – all told 280 cattle perished at enormous expense to the family.
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The family’s search for answers eventually led to the hiring of Cincinnati attorney Rob Bilott – and his involvement resulted in the sampling of local water supplies and the revelation that they were contaminated with high levels of PFAS – and specifically a derivative called C8 by industry for its 8-carbon chain (the same derivative abandoned by 3M). Scientists refer to it as PFOA or perflurooctanoic acid. This sequence of events led to the class action lawsuit linking six health conditions to exposure in the Mid-Ohio Valley residents. The details are documented in the major motion picture Dark Waters released in 2019 starring Mark Ruffalo and in Stain-Resistant, Nonstick Waterproof and Lethal – a book released in 2007.
For those who were paying attention, there were earlier signs of trouble at DuPont’s Washington Works facility near Parkersburg, West Virginia. In 1981, two of seven babies born to female workers assigned to the Teflon division suffered serious facial birth defects, prompting the corporation to remove all of the female workers from that part of the plant for several years. Community members were getting sick but without realizing they were being continually exposed to an industrial solvent, the cause was unknown and did not impact everyone. For instance, some workers who were directly exposed – having their hands in the raw material daily – suffered no ill effects, which made the claims of related illness from non-workers who had never touched the substance hard to believe. These events are chronicled in a documentary entitled The Devil We Know.
As a result of the class action lawsuit involving Mid-Ohio Valley residents, DuPont built water treatment facilities for six communities near Washington Works, funded the health study that linked six health conditions to exposure, and paid out more than $660 million in personal injury claims to more than 3,500 residents who suffered from the related conditions.
IS IT IN YOUR WATER?
In addition to the sampling results compiled by the South Carolina Bureau of Water, the Environmental Working Group has a Tap Water Database that provides sampling results for PFAS and other contaminants and is searchable by zip code. These resources make it easy for consumers to look up the levels of PFAS in public water systems and compare them with current advisories and proposed regulations.
WHAT ABOUT FILTRATION?
Water filtration systems are available to help households reduce exposure. Bottled water may contain PFAS – and many do – so switching from tap to bottled water is no guarantee of safety.
It is important to note filter-based treatment systems are reliant on the timely changeout of filters or filtration material. Failure to do so can result in significantly poorer water quality – and increased health risks for consumers. While common household filters – like pitchers that use granular activated carbon – are effective and reasonably priced, they require frequent filter replacements. Reverse osmosis is preferred when it can be accomplished affordably in part because it requires much less frequent filter replacements. Distillation is another alternative that removes PFAs, but it also strips the water of desirable minerals.
FURTHER STUDY …
MOVIE | The Devil We Know
MOVIE | Dark Waters
PODCAST | Dark History
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TV | The Daily Show
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THE SOUTH CAROLINA COMPLAINT …
(Via: S.C. Attorney General)
ABOUT THE AUTHOR ...
Callie Lyons is a journalist, researcher, and author whose investigative work can be found in media outlets, publications, and documentaries all over the world – most recently in the Parisian newspaper Le Monde and a German documentary for ProSieben. Lyons also appears in Citizen Sleuth – a 2023 documentary exploring the genre of true crime.
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