What some are now calling a chemical contamination crisis may have started as early as the 1940s, when DuPont introduced a proprietary coating called Teflon.
The class of chemical compounds that allow eggs to slide easily on nonstick cookware, waterproof mascara, and grease-repellent take-out containers are called PFAS, an acronym for per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances. They are commonly referred to as “eternal chemicals” because of how long they can stay in the environment and in our bodies.
“The scale and scope of this problem is simply mind-boggling,” said Sydney Evans. Evans is a scientist with the Environmental Working Group, an activist group that lobbies for policy changes to mitigate PFAS pollution.
Recent studies show that the chemicals have been integrated into the ecosystem, with researchers finding PFAS in everything from rainwater to plants and animals in our food. According to a CDC report, almost all Americans have PFAS in their blood.
“That’s why it’s so important to approach this from all angles, because we’ve been exposed in so many ways and there’s growing evidence that these substances are toxic at such low levels,” he said. said Evans.
Exposure to PFASs has been associated with cancer and negative effects on reproductive, developmental and immune health.
There are private labs that test blood levels for PFAS, but it’s not cheap.
I tried a $400 home test from Eurofins and EmpowerDX. About a week after my samples were collected and shipped, the results showed that my exposure to PFAS was no higher than average according to a median scale based on CDC data.
That wasn’t the case for Fayetteville resident Debra Stewart and her family, who live near a chemical plant in Chemours. Officials say Chemours has been releasing a host of PFAS chemicals into the air, soil and water for decades…resulting in drinking water pollution in the Cape Fear River and thousands of surrounding wells.
Stewart discovered his well a few years ago was contaminated and suspects health problems for his family and farm animals are linked to the exposure.
After participating in an NC State study, she learned that her family and pets had alarming levels of PFAS in their blood. “I feel like the Dupont Chemours factory gave us our lives and I don’t think they care what happens to us,” Stewart said.
Chemours did not directly respond to a request for comment, but went to its website and compliance documents.
There are thousands of different PFAS compounds. After years of research to prove one is dangerous, companies are using an alternative with a little chemical modification and lower toxicity research.
“Isn’t it sad that these companies can use chemicals until they are proven unsafe, instead of the other way around?” Wilmington resident Emily Donovan mused. , who started a local organization called Clean Cape Fear. “My family never signed up to be guinea pigs.”
Chemical companies, including Chemours, are embroiled in a number of ongoing legal battles. Some municipalities require polluters to foot the bill for costly upgrades they had to make to clean chemicals from drinking water. The Cape Fear Public Utility Authority is now able to completely remove PFAS from drinking water with a high-tech carbon filter system, but the utility says the project cost $43 million to install with 5 millions of additional dollars per year to operate. That cost can be passed on to the ratepayer, as many Wilmington residents, including Donovan, said they’ve seen their water bills go up in recent months.
Chemours is pushing back against attempts to regulate PFAS, including legal action against recent EPA drinking water advisory levels lowering the safe exposure recommendation of some chemicals to near zero. CHemours is also appealing a permit for a groundwater dam wall and water treatment system, saying it is uncertain whether it can comply with pollution reduction mandates from chemical products.
The EPA has begun the process of classifying two of the most widely used PFAS as hazardous substances under the so-called superfund law, but there are nearly 12,000 different PFAS compounds.
“We have to regulate them as a toxic family, as a class…and until we do that, we’re just going to be on this toxic treadmill where we ban one or two and there are thousands of them. others that continue to be used by industry,” said Erik Olson, a strategist with the Natural Resources Defense Council who has worked on drinking water policy for nearly three decades.
“Unfortunately, regulation in the United States is probably decades away,” he said.