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San Diego Suing Chemical Companies To Safeguard Water Supplies

Thanks to a massive chemistry experiment that has gone horribly wrong, most people in the United States, and likely the world, have a harmful chemical in their bodies. It’s unknown how many people have been sickened and killed by one of the largest industrial crimes in history.

In an attempt to turn the tide, the City of San Diego is suing more than 20 companies over water contamination from a toxic chemical called PFAS. The lawsuit claims that 3M, DuPont, Raytheon and others made firefighting foam that contained PFAS and alleges the companies were aware of the toxic nature of the chemicals, but concealed the environmental and public health dangers.

These chemicals have leached into our soil and water, which means that food supplies have been contaminated. People are most likely exposed by consuming PFAS-contaminated water or food, using products made with PFAS, or breathing air contaminated with PFAS.

PFAS are a large, complex, and ever-expanding group of manufactured chemicals that are widely used to make everyday products and firefighting products. For example, PFAS keeps food from sticking to cookware, make clothes and carpets resistant to stains and water, and create firefighting foam that is more effective. PFAS are used in aerospace, automotive, construction, electronics, and military. A 2021 study tested 231 cosmetic products. More than half of those tested contained PFAS. PFAS may be listed on the ingredient list as PTFE (polytetrafluoroethylene), perfluorooctyl triethoxysilane, perfluorononyl dimethicone, perfluorodecalin, and perfluorohexane. In 2016, the FDA barred the use of certain types of PFAS, called long-chain PFAS, from food packaging. It was found to have toxic effects on animal and human health. Nothing like conducting product research on an unsuspecting public.

The problem is that PFAS molecules are composed of an indestructible chain of carbon and fluorine atoms. The carbon-fluorine bond is extremely strong, which means that these chemicals do not degrade in the environment or in our bodies. In fact, scientists are unable to estimate an environmental half-life for PFAS, which is the amount of time it takes 50 percent of the chemical to disappear. Because of this characteristic, PFAS are referred to as forever chemicals.

Since PFAS don’t break down, they accumulate in the tissue of humans, wildlife and livestock. PFAS causes cancer, liver, thyroid, and kidney disease. They weaken the immune system, alter the metabolism, and disrupt the reproductive system. They cause infertility, miscarriage and birth defects. They cause neurological disorders. It also can blacken the teeth of those exposed. Much more research is needed to fully understand the public health and ecological impacts.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) found PFAS in the blood of 97 percent of Americans. PFAS also is commonly found in breast milk.

It’s safe to say that PFAS has contaminated most of the food and water supplies around the world. The contaminant also is taking its toll on fish, wildlife and livestock.

City Attorney Mara Elliott filed suit against more than 20 chemical companies for allegedly manufacturing toxic chemicals that have been detected in San Diego area water sources. The lawsuit claims that these chemical companies manufactured and concealed the toxic nature of firefighting foams that have contaminated drinking water supplies around San Diego for decades. It could be the first of thousands of related lawsuits around the world. These forever chemicals are also in Teflon, repellants and other products. More than 9,000 PFAS have been identified.

The lawsuit, filed in the Superior Court of California in San Diego on behalf of the People of California and the City of San Diego, seeks to force the companies to pay for the costs of cleanup since they profited from selling the products containing these dangerous chemicals. Fire-suppression foams, for example, used a class of chemicals called per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). PFAS also are used in products that repel oil and water. PFAS are called forever chemicals because this carbon-fluorine bond is incredibly strong, which makes PFAS impossible to break down in the natural environment and in our bodies. They remain highly toxic forever. For public health and the sake of entire ecosystems, those toxic chemicals must be removed from waters, soils, and other resources to contain the threat.

A single fire or training exercise can result in the discharge of thousands of gallons of PFAS foam, which leaches into the soil and groundwater. The residue gets carried away by surface water runoff, which contaminates streams, rivers, reservoirs and oceans. Of course, a toxic nightmare like this has likely taken a devastating toll on firefighters, not to mention those involved in the manufacture of these toxins. The movie Dark Waters with Mark Ruffalo does a thorough job of documenting the horrors of Dupont’s deceit. It also introduces us to the health effects.

The City has detected PFAS in certain drinking water supplies, storm water, wastewater, and other natural resources. It has taken initial steps to help prevent public exposure to PFAS. The cost to remove PFAS will be substantial and the task may be impossible.

“These polluters were interested primarily in profits and secrecy,” Elliott said. “This lawsuit will hold them accountable, restore the environment, and protect the health of today’s San Diegans and future generations. 3M, Dupont, and the others have known for decades that the PFAS that they developed, manufactured, and sold were toxic and that their intended use would contaminate the environment and jeopardize public health. We have documents showing that one of 3M’s chief scientists resigned in frustration over the company’s refusal to investigate the toxicity of PFAS, calling it the ‘most onerous pollutant since PCBs.’ ”

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, many PFAS chemicals break down slowly, if at all, which is why they are often called forever chemicals. Over time and exposure to certain levels of PFAS have been linked to health issues. Although these two compounds are no longer made in the United States, chemical manufacturers have replaced them with alternative PFAS, such as GenX, which has already been found in groundwater, rain and air in the United States.

“For years and years, we’ve known the military’s heavy use of PFAS-based firefighting foam has impacted service members, their families and surrounding communities,” said Senator Alex Padilla (D-CA).

The director of the U.S. Center for Disease Control’s National Center for Environmental Health called widespread contamination by PFAS chemicals one of the most important public health issues for the next several decades.

The lawsuit claims that the chemicals have been detected in wastewater from the Point Loma Wastewater Treatment Plant and South Bay Water Reclamation Plant. The lawsuit doesn’t seek damages on behalf of residents who have already been sickened and those who have died. It doesn’t seek medical monitoring for residents, former residents and visitors who drank the water, became sick. It doesn’t seek help for those who have already died. It doesn’t seek medical monitoring for thousands (probably millions) who could develop medical conditions in the future.

The human cost and the cost to pets, livestock, wildlife and sea creatures could bankrupt these companies, which is likely why this lawsuit isn’t going that direction, yet. As the movie Dark Waters revealed, scientists at DuPont referred to exposed humans as “receptors.”

Dark Waters is extremely accurate when compared to the true events, which makes it all the more upsetting. The script is based on the 2016 New York Times article “The Lawyer Who Became DuPont’s Worst Nightmare,” written by journalist Nathaniel Rich. That courageous lawyer is Robert Bilott, an American environmental attorney from Cincinnati, Ohio. Bilott is known for the lawsuits against DuPont on behalf of plaintiffs from West Virginia. Bilott has spent more than twenty years litigating hazardous dumping of the chemicals perfluorooctanoic acid and perfluorooctanesulfonic acid.

In addition to the contaminated water, cities must rethink the logic of dumping sewage sludge on farms, ranches and other open spaces. It’s permanently contaminating the soil, groundwater and water runoff with PFAS and other toxins. Since plants absorb water and nutrients from the contaminated soil, crops are contaminated with PFAS, prions and others toxins found in biosolids. The U.S. alone dumps more than 100 million tons of this toxic, infectious waste on farms, forests, playgrounds, golf courses and beyond every year. The EPA no longer stands behind the risk assessment that once claimed that dumping sewage sludge on land is a safe practice. The practice should be banned. Safer alternatives exist. In fact, dumping biosolids on land instantly qualifies property as a Superfund site. Banks and insurance companies themselves should step up and demand reform before their assets and liabilities bankrupt them.

In ‘Fluoropolymers’ the unit that repeats over and over is a simple carbon atom with two fluorine atoms attached; PTFE (Teflon) for non-stick pans is based on fluoropolymers. The slightly more complex ‘Fluorinated side-chain polymers’ are used in textile finishes to give stain resistance and water repellent qualities.

Not all PFAS are the same. The very large polymer PFAS, such as PTFE or fluorinated side-chain polymers used on textiles, are often considered too big to be taken up by our bodies, and therefore unlikely to cause harm to humans. However, harmful non-polymer forms of PFAS are used in the production of PFAS polymers. These harmful forms can also be created as the polymers breakdown. Until recently, PFOA and PFOS were the most commonly used PFAS in production of these polymers. They are the focus of the vast majority of research into PFAS so far and they are the ones that are heavily restricted or banned due to proven impacts on the environment and human health. These are sometimes referred to as C8 PFAS, based on their chain length. In light of both initiatives and legal restrictions, there has been an increase in the use of C6 PFAS, some of which are restricted.

To limit dangerous PFAS exposure through contamination and overall use, the Environmental Protection agency is taking the following steps. Hopefully, it will go much further much faster:

  • Hold manufacturers or facilities that pollute water and soil sources accountable;
  • Protect vulnerable communities that are at risk for high PFAS exposure;
  • Spot potential problems PFAS can cause throughout its long life cycle;
  • Lower PFAS exposure and risk in the first place;
  • Continue research to understand the long-term harm for humans and the environment; and
  • Develop methods to test, measure, remove, and destroy PFAS.

To ensure truly sustainable use, the full chemical lifecycle of any product needs to be understood before it’s rolled out for mass production and widespread use. Additionally, a lack of evidence of harm does not constitute, and should not be considered as, evidence of safety. PFAS should have never seen the light of day.

To see a map of PFAS exposure in the U.S., click here.

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Greener Cities is a division of Crossbow Communications. Greener Cities is a resource for sustainable and resilient cities and communities around the world.

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Author: Gary Chandler

Gary Chandler is a sustainability strategist, author and advocate. Follow him on Twitter @Gary_Chandler