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Forever Chemicals, Perpetual Problems

Updated: Nov 8, 2022

Photo: Chemours

Even if you do not know much about them, you have probably heard the term: PFAS, or per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances. These chemicals have been around since the mid-20th century and are still widely used today in consumer products and industrial applications. There are more than 9,000 PFAS identified, though the most common are PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid) and PFOS (perfluorooctanesulfonic acid). PFAS chemicals are ubiquitous and found in takeout boxes, non-stick cookware, furniture, plastics, and fire retardant. They also persist for a long time in water, air, soil, and animal blood. In fact, the United States’ Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reports that PFAS can be detected in the blood of nearly every American.

What Are the Problems with PFAS?

We lack critical understanding of PFAS chemicals. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) notes we don’t have answers to the following questions:

  1. How should PFAS be efficiently detected and measured in the environment?

  2. How can we determine how much PFAS exposure occurs in human society?

  3. How harmful are PFAS to people and the environment?

  4. How should PFAS be effectively removed from the environment?

  5. How do we manage and dispose of PFAS?

We do know that these chemicals pose human health risks. These include, but are not limited to, increased risk of cancers, high blood pressure in pregnant women, high cholesterol, changes to liver enzymes, thyroid issues, fertility issues, metabolic alterations, fetal growth and development problems, and increased risk of being overweight obese, and/or developing Type 2 diabetes.

In the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, the CDC and Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) found that PFAS exposure may suppress immune systems and antibody response, including vaccine response – particularly in children. With the potential for future pandemics on the rise due to climate change, this is only one more alarming impact of these persistent chemicals. Many PFAS chemicals can last up to eight years in the human body, accumulate over time, and take a century or more to degrade in the environment. PFOA and PFOS will not naturally degrade - hence their nickname, “forever chemicals. “ This means it is even more imperative that we find cleanup solutions, and fast.

PFAS In the News

In North Carolina, PFAS problems truly hit home. Perhaps one of the biggest public stories about PFAS centers around the Cape Fear River watershed. For years, chemical company Chemours (formerly DuPont) emitted extreme levels of GenX (a type of PFAS) into the Cape Fear River. The companies downplayed the dangers of PFAS, which leached from their factories for decades, despite documents demonstrating that DuPont began research in the 1960s linking PFAS to cancer, liver damage, and other issues. GenX was meant to be a “safer” form of PFAS, and was utilized by DuPont’s new company – Chemours – which had less conflict historically linked to its name.

Residents along the Cape Fear River have widely suffered at the hands of DuPont and Chemours. Studies have shown clusterings of thyroid cancer and other heightened health issues in the area. Particularly concerning is that PFAS disproportionately impact low-income communities and communities of color. Just yet another issue in a long list of environmental justice concerns.

Other controversies around PFAS focus on Aqueous Film Forming Foam (AFFF), a fire suppressant produced by DuPont, Chemours, 3M, and other companies. These foams are used by first responders, and concentrate at airports, where their usage is required. Groundwater samples at the Piedmont-Triad International Airport have shown PFOS concentrations up to 8,000 parts per trillion (ppt) – orders of magnitude higher than the EPA’s recently-updated advisory of 0.02 ppt (PFOS). And the chemicals can also make their way off-site. At Camp Lejeune and Marine Corps Air Station New River, PFOA contamination measured over 25,000 ppt (EPA’s health advisory is 0.004 ppt).

What is Being Done about PFAS Today?

In North Carolina, scandals involving Chemours, Dupont, and fire-fighting foam have drawn numerous investigations, calls for legislation, and lawsuits. Between 2018 and 2020, Chemours reached a settlement and agreed to stop intentional PFAS discharge and install cleanup and filtration technologies. Multiple suits around AFFF are ongoing.

In June this year, the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) released an Action Strategy for PFAS which prioritizes protecting communities, protecting drinking water, and cleaning up existing contamination. The N.C. General Assembly also pursued a bipartisan bill which sought to set maximum contamination levels for PFAS in drinking water and provide DEQ the power to order polluters to pay for PFAS cleanup. However, the bill has not moved since June.

At a national level, the EPA (led by former N.C. DEQ Secretary Michael Regan) released a PFAS Strategic Roadmap that incorporates research, restriction, and remediation activities to solve the questions and challenges discussed at the top of this article. As part of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, $1 billion will be granted to assist communities on the frontlines of PFAS contamination. This is part of a $5 billion grant to reduce PFAS in disproportionately impacted communities.

The EPA has also issued Notices of Proposed Rulemaking to designate PFOA and PFOS as Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA, or Superfund) Hazardous Substances. In addition, the agency announced a final rule this past summer to update the Toxics Release Inventory chemical list and require reporting on five additional PFAS chemicals. The EPA published the Final Fifth Drinking Water Contaminant Candidate List this week, which will inform regulation under the Safe Drinking Water Act in the coming years.

Though there is still much uncertainty and a lot of work to do, we are finally on the right track toward righting wrongs and mitigating the impacts of forever chemicals. Stay tuned for more updates to come – there is a lot happening in the world of PFAS.

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