Image annoucing new blog post on what is PFAS and is PFAS harmful 2023

PFAS - History, Threat to Health, & Pathways to Ingestion

On April 6, 1938, Roy J. Plunkett was a 27-year-old research chemist who worked on freon refrigerants at DuPont’s laboratory in Deepwater, New Jersey. Plunket had produced tetrafluoroethylene gas (TFE) and stored it overnight in small cylinders at dry-ice temperatures before chlorinating it. When he and an assistant prepared a cylinder for use, none of the gas came out — yet the cylinder weighed the same as before. They opened it and found a white powder. Overnight, the sample of tetrafluoroethylene in the cylinder had polymerized into a whitish, waxy solid to form poly-tetra-fluoro-ethylene, otherwise known as PTFE, today known as Teflon. 

Plunkett witnessed this historic polymerization – or chemical reaction in which two or more small molecules combine to form larger molecules.

Dupont chemists quickly discovered the chemical bond between fluorine and carbon atoms was the strongest in organic chemistry. Nothing can repel water, clean grease, or put out fires better. That’s saying a lot!

In Greek mythology, the tale of Daedalus and his son, Icarus provides a lesson that humanity still fails to comprehend. Daedalus created wings from feathers and wax. He warned Icarus not to fly too close to the sun for fear that the wax would melt. Icarus took off, exhilarated with the invention, and soared exuberantly toward the sun. The wax melted, his wings fell apart, and Icarus fell to his death.

Remarkable technologies may escape our control and imperil mankind and that’s what we have today with the entire class of per-and-poly fluoroalkyl substances, (PFAS).  By adding and subtracting carbon and fluorine atoms and including other elements, chemists have developed 14,000 varieties of PFAS, like the horrible things that flew out of Pandora’s box, before she could slam it shut.  Pandora unleashed greed, disease, and death like PFAS has done.

The last thing remaining inside of the box was hope.

Responsible scientists who advocate for managing the14,000 compounds as one chemical class have freed hope from the box. The staying-power, bio-accumulation potential, and known hazards of multiple PFAS compounds that have been closely studied warrant treating all PFAS as a single class.  It’s all about recognizing the carbon-fluorine bond and embracing the precautionary principle.

Meanwhile, actors like the American Chemistry Council question the health impacts of the chemicals and advocate a tedious kind of whack-a-mole approach to regulation. Chemical deregulation cheerleaders champion the substitution of well-studied hazardous chemicals like PFOS and PFOA with poorly understood, but molecularly similar PFAS that may be deadly.

Testicular, kidney, prostate, bladder, liver, colorectal, and ovarian cancers are closely associated with PFAS found in our bodies. California considers PFOS and PFOA to cause cancer. The EPA still does not regulate PFAS, leaving states to cobble together a patchwork of regulatory responses to the dangerous threat PFAS pose to public health.

According to the EPA, which does a great job tracking the science on these chemicals but is slow to regulate them, says exposure to certain levels of PFAS may lead to:

  • Reproductive effects such as decreased fertility or increased high blood pressure in pregnant women.
  • Developmental effects or delays in children, including low birth weight, accelerated puberty, bone variations, or behavioral changes.
  • Reduced ability of the body’s immune system to fight infections, including reduced vaccine response.
  • Interference with the body’s natural hormones.
  • Increased cholesterol levels and/or risk of obesity.

Current research has shown that people can be exposed to high concentrations of PFAS by:

  • Working in occupations such as firefighting or chemical manufacturing, chrome plating, wire coating, engine cleaning, etc.
  • Eating certain foods that may contain PFAS, especially fish and agricultural produce grown from farms that have allowed sewer sludge contaminated with PFAS to be spread.
  • Breathing air and dust containing PFAS.
  • Drinking water contaminated with PFAS. Well water near military and industrial sites is often contaminated.
  • Using products made with PFAS or that are packaged with the compounds.

Being human means we’re vulnerable. Almost all babies of exposed mothers are born with substantial levels of PFAS in their little bodies. The toxins pass through the placenta and mother’s milk. It’s a catastrophe. It is maddening that military and corporate actors have known these chemicals are dangerous for two generations.

There is overwhelming evidence to support that 3M knew PFAS accumulates in people’s blood and continued to manufacture them, still to this day. In fact, as early as the 1950s, 3M and Dupont scientists began discovering this accumulation of PFAS chemicals in the bodies of humans and animals. In the 1970’s 3M tested channel catfish in the Tennessee River and found a combined total of 2.74 parts per million for three of its PFAS compounds where its plant discharged the chemicals. In addition, a 1970s study of fish had to be abandoned “to avoid severe stream pollution” and because all the fish died.

Not to get too jiggy with the math, but that’s the same as 2,740 parts per billion or 2,740,000 parts per trillion. The EPA’s advisory in drinking water is under 1 part per trillion for two of these compounds.

PFAS in Tennessee River Fish Report

For decades, 3M was the exclusive provider of carcinogenic firefighter foam to several entities, including the Department of Defense.

The public is largely unaware of the chronic sources of exposure while the manufacturers and users are in no hurry to advertise the threat. In fact, we’re witnessing the practice of corporate “greenwashing” when companies advertise products or services as environmentally sustainable when they’re not.

There are many pathways to human ingestion. New toxicological studies have generated a ton of compelling information to take to court. The judicial route of redress is crucial these days as regulatory and legislative avenues of redress are often overburdened and unresponsive.

Frightening concentrations of PFAS in groundwater and surface water are possibly draining from active and former military bases and industrial sites in thousands of locations across the country.

Think of the soil in these places as a kind of massive subterranean sponge that is rinsed by the rain. PFAS contamination this severe is never going away, and it cannot be completely cleaned up, although we can and must take additional steps to protect human health. All the PFAS discarded at these sites over the last fifty years are still haunting us.

Consider these routes of PFAS chemical emissions into the environment:

Fire training exercises at civilian and military airports – Since the early 1970’s craters were filled with jet fuel and ignited. Aqueous film-forming foams (AFFF) containing PFAS were used to practice putting out the flames. The carcinogens flowed into groundwater and surface water and they’re still there.

Accidental releases of AFFF in overhead suppression systems at hangars and industrial shops –   Millions of gallons of AFFF may have been sent down the drain or allowed to sink into the ground from hundreds of mishaps resulting from human error and faulty engineering. A teaspoon of the substance can contaminate a city’s drinking water reservoir.

Wastewater treatment plants – Sewer plants act like Grand Central Stations for PFAS. Industrial, military and household drains send liquids containing PFAS down the drain. Some of the compounds become part of the sludge, which is typically applied to farm fields, poisoning crops. Others, like PFOS, contaminate the liquid effluent sent into our rivers, poisoning fish.  Wastewater treatment plants don’t treat PFAS. They just recycle it. It doesn’t go away.

Leachate draining from landfills – Leachate is the liquid runoff from a landfill. It’s like a giant coffee percolator.  Leachate often has high PFAS concentrations. The liquid may contaminate groundwater and surface water.  Leachate is often sent to wastewater treatment plants.

Vapor suppression systems associated with metal plating operations – PFAS is used as a chemical fume suppressant in chrome plating. Military and industrial machine parts are often plated with chrome for greater durability. Fume suppressants containing PFAS are commonly used by electroplating facilities for controlling air emissions and reducing worker exposure to hexavalent chromium, a known human carcinogen and inhalation hazard.  Often, these liquids go down the drain.

Wash racks for engine cleaning –   Nothing cleans engine parts like PFAS. Wash racks are used for cleaning aircraft and automobile parts. The liquids are sent down the drain. They saturate sediment. They contaminate the water.

Air Emissions – Shuttered military bases and industrial sites, along with active facilities, contaminate the air with PFAS in the surrounding communities. The toxins may be carried through soil by groundwater and surface water. The carcinogens coat the banks of canals and creeks. The compounds dry in the sun when the waters recede and become airborne when lifted by the wind. Long-range atmospheric transport of these contaminants is important to consider. We saw this in homes near the Shepherd Field Air National Guard Base, in Martinsburg, West Virginia that had dust with a concentration of 16.4 million ppt for PFHxS and 13.9 million ppt for PFOS. 

Materials containing PFAS are often incinerated, especially in the increasingly popular “waste to energy” incineration programs. Products like carpets and clothing may have high concentrations of the chemicals that do not break down in most commercial incinerators. The chemical dust sprinkles to the ground and collects in our lungs and our homes. The PFAS recycling process starts all over again – within us and without us.

If you or someone you know may have been exposed to PFAS for a period of time and are now suffering from health conditions as a result, it is crucial to seek medical attention and legal representation to protect yourself and your family. Trust The Downs Law Group to fight against the manufacturers to avoid future contamination and seek justice.

We offer free case consultations. Don’t pay if we don’t win your case!

Don’t wait, call now (305) 444-8226!