What is PFAS and Why is it so Dangerous?
Simply put, PFAS is class of more than 4,000 different chemicals and turns up in many everyday things such as clothing, auto parts, household products, fast food wrappers, microwave popcorn bags, firefighting foam and drinking water.
PFAS molecules are made up of a chain of linked carbon and fluorine atoms. Because the carbon-fluorine bond is one of the strongest in nature, these chemicals do not degrade in the environment, hence the “forever chemical” moniker. PFAS does not easily break down and can build up in your body and persist in the environment for decades. As a result of their pervasiveness, more than 95% of the US population has PFAS in their bodies according the Centers for Disease Control.
Product Manufacturers Love Affair with PFAS
PFAS are widely used in manufacturing to make a large variety of everyday products. PFAS chemicals keep food from sticking to cookware, make clothes and carpets resistant to stains and make jackets waterproof. PFAS chemicals are widely used in industries such as aerospace, automotive, construction, electronics and military with an enormous array of applications.
PFAS can also accumulate in the body through food and food packaging. A 2017 study found PFAS in one-third of all fast-food wrappers where it can easily migrate into greasy foods. PFAS is also common in microwave popcorn bags which when heated emit PFAS into the popcorn and butter.
PFAS Hits the Big Screen
In September 2019, PFAS made its debut on the big screen in the movie Dark Waters, which was inspired by the true story of attorney Rob Bilott taking on chemical giant DuPont. Actor Mark Ruffalo plays Bilott, a corporate defense lawyer from Cincinnati working for law firm Taft Stettinius & Hollister. Farmer Wilber Tennant, who knows Bilott’s grandmother, asks Rob to investigate what is killing off his livestock in Parkersburg, West Virginia. Through rigorous investigation, Bilott uncovers that DuPont is dumping PFAS chemicals into the environment and exposing workers at the local manufacturing plant. As the plot twists and unfolds, Bilott ends up trying 3 individual cases winning multi-million verdicts and settles a class action on behalf of Parkersburg residents for $671 million.
Rob Bilott remains active in PFAS litigation and serves as Plaintiffs’ Advisory Counsel for the AFFF multidistrict litigation (MDL 2873).
EPA Response: PFOA Stewardship Program
In 2006, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) stepped in with an initiative to phase out the use of PFOA in all forms in the United States through the PFOA Stewardship Program. The Agency invited eight major manufacturers of perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl to join the PFOA Stewardship Program to first reduce and then completely phase out these chemicals from emissions and products by 2015.
As members of the Program, each of the eight manufacturers committed to reducing PFOA from facility emissions and product content by 95 percent by 2010 and to completely eliminate PFOA from emissions and product content no later than 2015. The PFOA Stewardship Program was officially launched on March 1, 2006. As a baseline for measuring progress, the PFOA Stewardship Program decided to use each individual company’s year 2000 data emissions and product content information.
Unfortunately, the phase-out of PFAS chemicals are sometimes followed by the introduction of alternative industrial processes and products that can become new sources of PFAS such as GenX.
The Dangers of Exposure to PFAS
Most people are exposed to PFAS chemicals by consuming contaminated food or water, using products made with PFAS or breathing contaminated air. According to a report by researchers at the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), PFAS can be found in the blood of 97% of all Americans. Another study revealed that PFOA can be transferred from pregnant women to their unborn children and has been found in breast milk.
One of the most significant exposure points are current and former military bases across the nation. The Department of Defense and U.S. National Guard have created a PFAS/PFOA Task Force to assess the problem and make recommendation on how to deal with contamination at over 650 bases. Officials have outlined where the Department of Defense is performing an assessment of PFAS use or potential release. Locations include facilities in every state in the U.S. PFAS contamination has been found in ground water or water supplies on and around numerous installations.
Democratic representative Adam Smith, who chairs the House Armed Services Committee, said the reports are immensely important. “The identification of over 250 new sites where PFAS was potentially released is astonishing. It is critical that the Department provide communities with timely assessment of these sites, communicate transparently with impacted households, and quickly act to protect civilians and service members alike from these forever chemicals.”
Health Risks Related to PFAS Exposure
Studies have linked PFAS exposure to multiple types of cancer, birth defects, thyroid disease and liver damage. Other studies on PFAS have linked exposure to high cholesterol, nerve system disorders, immune system health problems and testicular and kidney cancer. Products made from various forms of PFAS are so ubiquitous that just about everyone has PFAS in their bodies. Testing conducted by the U.S. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry finds PFAS present in nearly every blood sample they take.
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