Cities, States Suing Chemical Companies Over Water Contamination

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. A chemical cocktail designed to help housewives, firemen and others is now the focus of a massive industrial crime.

PFAS are a large group of manufactured chemicals that are used to make everyday products, including cosmetics, carpet, food packaging, Teflon and fire retardants. PFAS are used in aerospace, automotive, construction, electronics, and military. PFAS is often listed on products as PTFE (polytetrafluoroethylene), perfluorooctyl triethoxysilane, perfluorononyl dimethicone, perfluorodecalin, and perfluorohexane. More than 9,000 different types of PFAS have been identified.

Thanks to negligence and fraud, the vast majority of Americans of all ages are now part of this chemistry experiment. 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 threatens fish, wildlife and livestock.

The problem is that PFAS molecules are composed 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. The industry admits that there are several gaps in research that need to be filled.

PFAS are called forever chemicals because they remain highly toxic forever. Forever 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. 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. Unfortunately, Pandora left the box long ago.

Thanks to one very tenacious lawyer named Robert Bilott, legal battles are gaining momentum. The movie Dark Waters summarizes Bilott’s courageous work and it documents the horrors of Dupont’s deceit. The movie is based on an article written by Nathaniel Rich, a reporter for the New York Times.

Bilott is an environmental attorney from Cincinnati. He 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 these forever chemicals.

Thanks to Bilott’s groundbreaking work, San Diego is suing more than 20 companies over water contamination caused by 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.

City Attorney Mara Elliott filed suit against the 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.

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.

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 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.’”

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. On May 9, Maine Gov. Janet Mills signed a law banning the spread of biosolids that contains PFAS on land. The bill’s passage made Maine the first state in the U.S. to ban the use of industrial and municipal sewage sludge as fertilizer.

The bill was presented by Rep. Bill Pluecker (I-Warren), who owns a farm in Warren. Environmental advocacy groups including Defend our Health, MOFGA, Maine Farmland Trust and Maine Conservation Voters also campaigned for passage of this bill. 

For decades, Maine farmers used PFAS-contaminated sludge as fertilizer as part of a Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) approved program. The DEP distributed cheap sludge-filled fertilizer to farmers and heavily promoted the program as environmentally friendly. Defend our Health Deputy Director Patrick Macroy explained how closures of Stoneridge Farm in Arundel and Songbird Farm in Unity forced Maine farms to learn that spreading PFAS-sludge fertilizer on their land wasn’t safe, despite assurances from the state.

biosolids and public health

“This law assures that false promises are no longer going to be made,” Macroy said. “We have learned from the mistakes of the past and we are no longer going to distribute material with a high likelihood of being dangerously contaminated. We will prevent more farms from having to be closed because of the pollution.”

Maine took a hard look at the issue after milk from cows on a dairy farm that spread sludge were contaminated with high levels of PFAS. The cows had to be killed. The farmers also had extremely high levels of PFAS in their blood.

According to the Environmental Working Group (EWG), about 20 million acres of cropland in the United States may be contaminated from PFAS-tainted sewage sludge that has been used as fertilizer. The EPA no longer backs it own risk assessment on the practice of dumping sewage sludge on open land. Public health advocates warn the practice is poisoning the nation’s food supply. It’s estimated that 60 percent of the nation’s sludge is spread on cropland or other fields every year.

The health cost of using sewage sludge outweighs the benefits, advocates say. Many have questioned the sense in spending billions of dollars to pull sludge out of water only to inject the substance into the nation’s food and water supplies.

“We don’t know the full scope of the contamination problem created by PFAS in sludge, and we may never know, because EPA has not made it a priority for states and local governments to track, test and report on,” said Scott Faber, EWG’s legislative policy director.

In addition to defending its soil, Maine is going after the companies that produced the sludge and claimed that it was safe for use on crops. Maine Attorney General Aaron Frey announced over the weekend that his office is preparing a lawsuit against PFAS manufacturers.

“For those farmers who have had their businesses and health threatened, the bill is exactly what they want,” Pluecker said. “Farmers do not want to spread contaminated sludge on their fields.”

Maine will set aside $60 million to financially aid farmers impacted by PFAS pollution. The state is investigating about 700 more fields for PFAS pollution caused by biosolids.

Macroy wants to ensure the funding remains true to the goal of assisting impacted farmers, as well as families whose well water was contaminated as a result of the sludge application— who are also eligible for medical monitoring under the fund.

Meanwhile, Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey just filed a lawsuit against 13 PFAS manufacturers that knowingly polluted drinking water, groundwater and other natural resources in the state. The suit will be combined with hundreds of similar lawsuits brought by other states, municipalities and private and public water districts.

“For decades, these manufacturers knew about the serious risks highly toxic PFAS chemicals pose to public health, the environment, and our drinking water — yet they did nothing about it,” Healey said. “As a result of this deception, our municipalities are spending millions of dollars to provide safe drinking water to their residents. I am suing today to hold these manufacturers accountable, require them to pay the growing costs these communities are shouldering, and repair our state’s precious natural resources that have been damaged by these illegal actions.”

The lawsuit was filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of South Carolina. It says that the companies marketed and sold aqueous film-forming foam (AFFF) containing PFAS despite knowing the risks posed by these chemicals and therefore violated state and national laws protecting drinking water and forbidding lying to customers. It also names a further two companies that hid assets that should have been made available to help pay for the cost of dealing with the contamination.

3M, AGC Chemical Americas, Archroma U.S. Inc., The Chemours Company and DuPont de Nemours Inc. are among those named in the suit, which claims that the companies failed to disclose information about the dangers posed by PFAS. It claims that they lied to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency about the issue. It alleges that they tried to stop workers from talking about the dangers posed by PFAS.

“More firefighters die of occupational cancer than anything else we face,” Professional Firefighters of Massachusetts President Richard MacKinnon Jr. said. “PFAS has been proven and linked to cause these cancers among our firefighters. This as a great step in that fight against the epidemic of firefighter cancer.”

This lawsuit says that the companies’ actions contaminated more than 126 public drinking water systems in 86 Massachusetts communities. They also contaminated rivers, estuaries, soil and important habitats for marine life.

“We’re glad the Massachusetts Attorney General’s office is taking steps to hold PFAS manufacturers accountable for the financial burden that communities are facing as they try to provide their residents with safe drinking water,” said Dr. Julia Brody, executive director and senior scientist at Silent Spring Institute. “It’s concerning that these highly persistent and toxic chemicals are so pervasive in drinking water given what we know about their health impacts, even at low levels, and especially among children whose developing bodies are more vulnerable to chemical exposures.”

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 immediately. 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.

To ensure truly sustainable use, the full chemical lifecycle of any product needs to be understood before it’s rolled out for widespread use. PFAS should have never seen the light of day.

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