Alana and I recently watched the movie, Dark Waters, which follows a lawyer, Rob Bilott, as he discovers (and eventually fights for) the plight of the town’s residents of Parkersburg, West Virginia against the problems caused by PFAS that originated from the local DuPont plant. Alana had been aware of the chemical issue for a couple years and had told me about it, but I didn’t fully grasp the damage the chemical had done until reading the SlimeMoldTimeMold series on Obesity.
PFAS, or per and polyfluoroalkyl substances, are a set of chemicals created in the 1940s, used and sold by 3M and Dupont. These chemicals were deemed useful in a variety of applications for their ability to last a long time and for their water impermeability. They have been dubbed as “forever chemicals,” due to the chemical bond that is so strong that it does not ever degrade or break down, even when exposed to extreme heat. From its inception, these companies have studied the chemical and have found through conducting their own studies that its exposure brings harmful effects to humans. Prevalence in humans is strongly linked to thyroid issues, various cancers, infertility and birth defects. There is even current ongoing research that suggests PFAS may play a role in the obesity epidemic found throughout the country.
Where are these chemicals and how do we come into contact with them? The infamous Teflon coating, famous for being nonstick and used in all different kinds of cookware, is comprised completely of PFAS. At higher temperatures, the Teflon separates from the pan and goes into the food and into the air, with fumes so damaging that it could kill birds. This was made the most aware to the public in 2002, during a segment from Barbara Walters on ABC’s 20/20. The substance can also be found in thousands of different materials and products, from fast food packaging, firefighting foam, carpets, paints, stains and waterproof clothing, to Atlantic salmon and most municipal water supplies. 99% of humans are said to have at least one of the thousands of types of PFAS in their blood as well as over 90% of wild animals, from polar bears in the far north to migratory birds to ocean dwelling creatures and mammals in the tropics.
When the EPA was founded, chemicals were grandfathered in and were not regulated unless the companies themselves said that the chemicals were harmful to the public. They had no obligation to report and were happy to hide their own data showing how harmful these chemicals were as they profited massively ($1 billion per year in Teflon alone). The EPA has had the ability and the power to restrict the use of chemicals since its inception in 1976. To date, the agency has only banned 9 out of ~80,000.
Over the past few years, companies have begun to move away from using PFAS in their products. Home Depot and Lowes no longer sell carpets made with the substance. Some outdoor companies like Helly Hansen have begun to release rain gear that is not made with PFAS. Alana and I were pleased to find out that Alpacka packrafts are PFAS free. The Biden Administration created a new PFAS task force earlier this year, so perhaps one day this substance will actually be banned from use. To date, companies like 3M and DuPont have had to pay hundreds of millions and billions of dollars to residents, communities and states for the damage they have inflicted with these chemicals. Yet, untold numbers of waste barrels full of PFAS remain around the country, leaking into and contaminating the public water supply. With its ongoing use and no prospects at the moment of removing the material from the environment, let alone our own bodies, the damage has already been done.
We watched Dark Waters through some event put on by an environmental group of Alaska. I was frustrated by the discussion and the proposed solutions suggested by the group members. It is something that is similarly found in things like climate change and other areas where people suggest change. “We need to talk about it more, have more events and bring more awareness.” Yet in these events, there is never anyone who is not already in agreement about the problem and the solution always falls on “them,” it is never their own fault, just the big companies. If we agree to meet later on, talk more and agree again we are making progress. No. Real solutions require real and immediate action. I am just as much culpable and responsible for the perpetuation of things that I do not agree with when I continue to support them, whether through purchase, use or other actions. While I am all for the banning of PFAS, there are things I can do right now that make a difference. We are implementing a water filtration setup in our home (there is PFAS in the local water supply), will be refraining from using PFAS like materials (paints and stains) as well as refraining from purchasing things with PFAS to the best of our ability. There are over thousands of PFAS chemicals and no public database which details in what products they are found. Once more I find myself wanting to return to more of a traditional way of living, where something like clothing is made of things like animal fur or wool, instead of things we barely understand, that we can’t eliminate, and which plague us and our bodies for our entire lives.