Politics and science can be a dangerous mix: The public doesn’t understand science particularly well, and scientists aren’t particularly good at explaining themselves in ways that normal folks understand.
Consider the debate over per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, a group of chemicals used for industrial and clothing and other products that resist heat, oil, stains, grease, and water. The PFAS chemicals originated just after the Second World War as Teflon, a DuPont product for nonstick cooking pots and pans, morphing into a host of other products as the years rolled on.
Although the original PFAS chemical used to make Teflon has been taken off the market, PFAS chemicals are widely used in a variety of ways: coated paper and cardboard packaging for fast-food takeouts; stain-resistant chemicals for furniture and carpets; water-repellent outdoor hiking clothing (like Gore-Tex); as a base in many personal care products and cosmetics; and firefighting foam.
These PFAS chemicals go by several acronyms now; for ease’s sake, we’ll just refer to them all as PFAS. They are known as “forever chemicals,” meaning that once they get into the natural environment it is hard to get rid of them. This is especially true for water systems. The Minneapolis Star-Tribune published a great story in September laying out the history of how a particular chemical compound used in Teflon-branded nonstick products has moved from a little-known EPA issue to a potentially national issue.
Tap-water samples tested by the Environmental Working Group in 2020 from 44 sites in 31 states and Washington, D.C. found that only three had PFAS readings below EPA standards. Some of the highest PFAS levels detected were in samples from major metropolitan areas, including Miami, Philadelphia, New Orleans, and the northern New Jersey suburbs of New York City.
Northern Virginia counties near Washington, D.C. have also tested high for PFAS in the water. The source of PFAS contamination in the latest samples is not known. Speculation based on the location of the samples is that the Occoquan Reservoir and/or the Occoquan River watershed in Prince William County. It may be from the multiple military bases in the region, and the results from PFAS-based firefighting foams have been used for decades getting in the drinking water.
So PFAS is in our water. The key question we must then ask is this: “What is the provable danger?” This is where it gets tricky. Health concerns resulting from PFAS contamination are more speculative than certain. A recent Harvard University review of PFAS health-care issues came to the conclusion it could possibly be causing some increases in cancer, liver damage, decreased fertility, increased risk of asthma, and thyroid disease. But is the level of certainty sufficient to act upon?
Adding to the confusion are accusations that the EPA and big chemical companies have stifled research on this issue for decades, leading to an overall underestimating of the public’s exposure risk. Dr. Elsie Sunderland, associate professor of environmental science and engineering at Harvard, testified on December 7 before the environment subcommittee of the House science committee about just this issue.
“We have only anecdotal evidence for understanding PFAS exposure sources for the U.S. general population,” according to Sunderland’s written testimony. “Major pathways of PFAS exposure include ingestion of food and drinking water, ingestion and inhalation of dust, and dermal uptake from personal care products and other sources. The relative importance of different exposure sources for the general population is unknown, impeding the development of effective risk mitigation strategies.”
The EPA’s long-awaited update on PFAS policies included sections that suggested the chemical may be headed to Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act and possible “Superfund” status.
Meanwhile, the federal government and some state governments are taking actions to limit the use and spread of PFAS chemicals.
The Biden administration put out an executive order last week that told federal purchasing agents to not buy PFAS-containing products, including cookware, carpets and couches for the Department of Defense. In November, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer likewise ordered state agencies to avoid buying products containing PFAS if possible.
The courts have also been busy.
Much of the world’s carpet is made in and around Dalton, Ga., and a federal judge ruled in September that a big PFAS-based case can proceed. “The implications for companies that have used PFAS in manufacturing processes are enormous,” wrote the National Law Review. “Not only are these companies rapidly becoming the targets of state level EPA enforcement action for PFAS pollution issues, but the companies will now also find themselves embroiled in costly civil litigation.”
The City of Dayton is suing Wright-Patterson Air Force Base for $300 million for degradation of local drinking water thanks to the base’s use of firefighting foam. Meanwhile, 3M agreed to pay $99 million to settle PFAS contamination lawsuits in Decatur, Ga., this October.
Private organizations are getting in on the act as well: InsideHook, a trendy media source for the hiking and biking crowd, has turned against producers like Patagonia, warning “Your Waterproof Gear Is Incredibly Useful. It’s Also Killing the Planet.”
Rep. Tim Walberg of Michigan was one of several House Republicans to recently criticize government action restricting the use of PFAS. More PFAS studies, Walberg said, “will hamstring our small businesses, manufacturers, and water utilities by forcing them to take on so much cost and liability that they will be unable to comply, or forced to raise prices and hire armies of attorneys—all because Congress decided to substitute its political agenda for objective scientific judgment.”
This complaint would have more weight if the “objective scientific judgment” were delivered with a clear and uniequivocal voice. But as often happens, the scientific community is split on how to proceed, with various groups lobbying various charges of varying levels of prissiness at each other. The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) has accused the business trade organization, the American Chemistry Council, of suppressing PFAS studies through excessive EPA lobbying. The chemistry council responded with a post titled, “UCS chooses to peddle conspiracy theories rather than be a constructive partner in PFAS effort.”
For now, we need to let scientists take the lead and ensure better research is done that is coordinated more efficiently at the top to determine just how dangerous these chemicals are. We also need to be mindful of the cost: Right now, the U.S. Department of Defense has spent $1.1 billion on PFAS cleanup in 2020, and estimates it will spend at least double that amount in 2021. But this is a long-term problem: The DOD estimates it will take decades just to address the pollution they know is in the water near the military bases.