Toxic perfluoroalky and polyfluoroalkyl chemicals (PFAS), sometimes called “forever chemicals” given their inability to break down in the environment, have been largely phased out of use throughout the United States, only to be replaced by similar, equally toxic chemicals that are being hidden from the public.
The group of toxic chemicals known as PFAS have been found or are suspected to exist in ground and surface water at 678 military installations across the U.S., as well as a number of private industrial production sites.
These chemicals are used in firefighting foam, water- and stain-resistant textiles, non-stick coatings, and several other commercial applications. They are also known to promote cancer and a spectrum of other adverse health conditions including kidney disease, thyroid conditions and auto-immune disorders. The chemicals have become so prevalent in the environment that they are present in everybody. And, given their ability to suppress the immune system, they are likely leaving many of us more susceptible to the symptoms of coronavirus infection.
New Jersey and North Carolina
According to Arlene Blum, PhD, the founder and executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute and a research associate in Chemistry at the University of California in Berkeley, California, recent scientific investigations have turned up evidence of widespread PFAS pollution emanating from the Solvay chemical plant in New Jersey and the DuPont and Chemours plants in North Carolina.
Tests found PFAS-contaminated soil in a wide radius around the Solvay chemical plant in West Deptford, New Jersey, with particles from the plant showing up 280 miles away in New Hampshire.
Studies also showed equally disturbing levels of pollution from the DuPont and Chemours plants, which have contaminated the entire Cape Fear River system with the chemicals. Thousands of North Carolinians get their drinking water from the Cape Fear River, and most water treatment plants aren’t equipped to filter out the chemicals.
No place is immune
Even communities and states with strong environmental protections in place aren’t immune from the effects of PFAS pollution. The chemicals are carried for hundreds of miles on air currents and waterways into neighboring states. And, despite knowing just how devastating these chemicals are to the environment and to human health, companies continue to make and use them and release them into the water we drink, the air we breathe, and the soil in which food is grown.
Only now, instead of PFAS chemicals, the companies are using “chemical cousins with similar structure, function and toxicity” as the PFAS family of chemicals, Dr. Blum said. She also notes that “the identity of the replacements … is hidden from the public and the EPA scientists as confidential business information,” in much the same way big fracking companies have been allowed to hide the chemicals they inject into our bedrock and water tables from public view, simply by claiming they are trade secrets.
Legislative remedies in the works
There seems to be an astonishing lack of interest and action among legislators in many of the communities affected by PFAS contamination, but some officials are acting on the federal level to address the problem.
Senators Jean Shaheen (D-N.H.), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) and others are proposing a series of amendments to this year’s military budget address the problem, including listing the chemicals as hazardous substances; compensating communities polluted by military-related chemical leaks and releases; and holding the polluter companies accountable for the environmental damage by authorizing the military to recover the costs of related damages.
Another bill in the Senate aims to protect military men and women from PFAS by reducing their use of the products that use the chemicals, which would lead to a reduced demand and production of the chemicals.