Fighting ‘Forever Chemicals’

Long-lasting toxins require stronger regulation.
Cape Fear River in North Carolina has been contaminated by PFAS chemicals (Bud Davis, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers).

Since the new year, elevated levels of toxic chemicals have been found in beef sold to schools in Michigan, in the drinking water of several New Hampshire towns, and even in the produce from organic farms in Maine. All belong to a class of compounds called per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS. These “forever chemicals” were first manufactured in the 1940s, and gained popularity for their water- and grease-repellent properties. They do not break down naturally. Instead, they accumulate—in water, soil, animals, and people.

PFAS bioaccumulation has been linked to several types of cancer, liver damage, birth defects, and weakened immune response. Manufacturers have so far thwarted regulatory efforts by using tricks that seem to be pulled straight from the Big-Tobacco playbook: they withhold in-house studies that warn of their products’ risks; fund research that downplays the chemicals’ danger; or replace specific PFAS with others that are ostensibly safer but haven’t been rigorously tested, and often turn out to be just as dangerous. This strategy works because, according to independent researchers and the Environmental Defense Fund, the Federal Drug Administration “does not demand sufficient safety data up front and [has] no systematic reassessment to determine whether chemicals are safe after they are sent to the market.”

Cleaning up the pollution is no simple matter—these are, after all, “forever chemicals.”

Chemours, the company that operates the Fayetteville Works plant in North Carolina, serves as a striking example. It claimed that its GenX PFAS was a safer alternative to the plant’s previous product, PFOA. But as the chemical contaminated drinking water and spilled into the Cape Fear River, it became clear that not only was Chemours misrepresenting GenX’s toxicity, but also the company’s ability to keep it contained. Spun off from chemical giant DuPont in 2015, Chemours claims it bears no responsibility because the contamination precedes its existence. Meanwhile, DuPont claims that Chemours assumed all liability for Fayetteville Works when the company was established. A suit brought by the North Carolina attorney general to make both companies pay to clean up the pollution is still in progress. But cleaning up the pollution is no simple matter—these are, after all, “forever chemicals.” Disseminated via biosolid fertilizer (fertilizer created from wastewater sludge), they remain in the soil for decades, as they did at the contaminated organic farm in Maine and the beef farm in Michigan. And the contamination has become so widespread that it’s hard to keep up with just how much harm these chemicals may be doing. A New Hampshire attorney suing PFAS-manufacturer Saint-Gobain said that “the more these PFAS manufacturers contaminate the planet, the more difficult it is to do effective human health studies, as there are fewer and fewer ‘uncontaminated’ populations to compare to.”

The latest technology emerging to address PFAS uses a heat- and pressure-based technique called supercritical water oxidation with promising results, but it isn’t ready for large-scale use. On the federal level, EPA administrator Michael Regan—who previously worked in North Carolina and saw the Cape Fear River disaster firsthand—introduced a “PFAS Strategic Roadmap” in October 2021, signaling a new commitment to researching, restricting, and remediating damage from the compounds over the next three years. And the bipartisan infrastructure bill passed last year dedicates $10 billion to cleaning up contaminants. But these measures could still be hamstrung by companies that know how to game the regulatory process. Rather than just trying to hold chemical manufacturers accountable for the devastating impacts of their products, we should act to prevent them from inflicting such damage in the first place. 

Published in the March 2022 issue: 

Isabella Simon is the managing editor at Commonweal.

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