In January 2016, the CSBJ reported highly fluorinated toxic industrial chemicals called PFCs contaminated drinking water provided to more than 80,000 residents of Fountain, Security and Widefield.
First synthesized in the 1950s by 3M, these perfluorinated substances have been used by manufacturers worldwide in products that include firefighting foam, nonstick cookware and waterproofing compounds.
The story culminated months later in the revelation that the contaminants came from firefighting foam used in training exercises at Peterson Air Force Base. The Air Force has subsequently spent millions of dollars in attempting to ameliorate the problems by providing bottled water and filtration systems to residents and water providers, but the problem hasn’t gone away, either locally or nationally.
Long-chain PFCs such as perfluorooctanoic acid, formerly used to make DuPont’s Teflon, and perfluorooctanesulfonic acid, formerly an ingredient in 3M’s Scotchgard, are both bioaccumulative and nondegradeable. They are present in the tissues of almost every living organism.
Independent scientific studies have linked PFCs to cancer, thyroid disease, low birth weight, weakened immunity and other health problems, but the Environmental Protection Agency still hasn’t issued federal regulations for PFCs in drinking water, classifying them as “monitored but not regulated.”
In May 2016, the EPA revised its health advisory level for PFOA and PFOS in drinking water from 400 parts per trillion to 70 parts per trillion. That’s pretty low, but scientists such as Harvard’s Philippe Grandjean suggest that it ought to be no more than 1 ppt, the equivalent of one drop of water in 1,000 swimming pools.
And while the EPA has dithered, trial lawyers, state regulators and state attorneys general are moving aggressively forward.
Next week, a nine-member jury in Minneapolis will hear a $5 billion lawsuit brought by the state of Minnesota against 3M. The state claims that 3M “knowingly contaminated” the drinking water of several Minneapolis-area communities with PFCs, thereby damaging health, property values, wildlife and the environment.
3M is mounting a vigorous defense, citing a report released last week by the Minnesota Department of Health that analyzed regional health data and found no statistically significant increase in rates of cancer and birth defects in contaminated areas.
The outcome of this suit could have a significant impact on a similar case in Colorado Springs, where several individual suits have been consolidated into one action against 3M, the manufacturer of the firefighting foam used at Peterson Air Force Base.
Unwilling to wait for the EPA, legislators in several of the most severely affected states are moving aggressively to regulate PFCs in drinking water, including New Jersey, Vermont, Minnesota and Michigan. Maximum proposed concentrations range from 5 ppt (Michigan) to 14 ppt (New Jersey).
Despite the Trump administration’s deregulatory bent, it seems unlikely that PFCs will be given a pass, perhaps because so many affected communities are linked to military bases. Patrick Breysse, director of the CDC’s National Center for Environmental Health, was outspoken at a scientific meeting last month.
“[Highly fluorinated chemicals] are one of the most seminal public health challenges for the next decades,” he said. “We think that hundreds of millions of Americans soon will be drinking water with levels of these chemicals above levels of concern.”
Although state and federal regulators seem poised to severely regulate long chain PFCs, the chemical industry in the United States and Europe has long since replaced them with short chain PFCs, closely related chemicals with similar properties. The military has disposed of all of its long-chain based firefighting foam and replaced it with short chain fluorosurfactants, which might or might not be safer.
For those of us not versed in organic chemistry, the entire debate may seem arcane and incomprehensible — but consider this week’s release of a peer-reviewed study in PLOS Medicine that establishes a clear link between PFCs used in stain-repellent clothing and carpets and obesity, particularly in women.
As Green Science Institute Executive Director Arlene Blum put it playfully: “Does your waterproof jacket make you fat?”
And given human nature, we’re more likely to be alarmed by products that make us fat than those that pose slight risks of serious disease. Combine both, and there goes the jacket.