Nantucket Memorial Airport, which is now paying to clean nearby drinking water contaminated by its decades of using PFAS-containing firefighting foam, has filed a lawsuit against the constellation of high-profile global companies that made and sold the products.
As evidence mounts that hamburger wrappers and other kinds of grease-proof packaging contaminate food with PFAS, states have started banning the toxic chemicals from food packaging.
Now, a new report provides yet another reason to remove PFAS, or perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, from food wrappers: climate and ozone pollution.
PFAS exposure is linked to immune and developmental system effects, increased risk of preeclampsia in pregnant women, increased risk of kidney and testicular cancers, and higher cholesterol, among other health effects. The Daikin America plant in Decatur, Alabama, which manufactures PFAS used to coat food packaging and textiles, released 240,584 pounds of the ozone-depleting chemical Chlorodifluoromethane (HCFC-22)—the global warming equivalent of one billion pounds of carbon dioxide—in 2019, according to a new report out Thursday from the nonprofit Toxic-Free Future.
While HCFC-22, used in refrigeration, was banned at the start of last year under the Montreal Protocol, companies are still allowed to produce the compound as a byproduct of making other substances. Advocates say the new report highlights the need to close that loophole—and to use PFAS-free food packaging alternatives.
"The entire world is scrambling to reduce greenhouse gas emissions before their damage to our climate is beyond repair, yet we are letting a company dump hundreds of thousands of pounds of hydrochlorofluorocarbons into the atmosphere so that it can produce 'forever chemicals' that poison our communities?" Peggy Shepard, executive director of the nonprofit WE ACT for Environmental Justice, who was not involved in the report, said in a prepared statement. "Where is the justice in that?"
Far-reaching impacts of PFAS production
Credit: Path of Toxic Pollution report
The impetus for the study was to learn more about the impacts of PFAS-containing products before they get to consumers or end up in landfills, Erika Schreder, science director of Toxic-Free Future, told EHN. The researchers found that there appears to be only one plant in the U.S. that makes PFAS for fast food packaging coating.
Daikin America, which also emits 55,000 pounds a year of the carcinogen tetrafluoroethylene, is the number two emitter in the country of HCFC-22 after the Chemours chemical manufacturing plant in Louisville, Kentucky, according to the report.
The authors also looked at the upstream pollution from the paper mills that coat food packaging with Daikin's PFAS product, estimating that each mill releases around 180 pounds of PFAS a day into waterways, with an additional 1,260 pounds ending up in sludge at wastewater treatment plants. "We have to remember that whenever PFAS is used, it's part of the drinking water contamination problem," said Schreder, noting that landfills have been a major source of PFAS pollution around the country.
Health problems near PFAS plant
Decatur's PFAS manufacturing plant was originally built in 1961 by 3M, which sold the facility to Daikin America in 2014. Concerns about the plant, and other factories in the industrial area, have been around for decades, Brenda Hampton, a local resident and founder of Concerned Citizens of WMEL Water Authority, told EHN. Hampton and her mother both experienced kidney failure, and residents have come down with unusual forms of cancer and respiratory problems, she said.
Federal health authorities have tied elevated levels of PFAS in residents' blood to drinking water contamination downstream of that and another area plant, with Daikin agreeing to pay the local water authority $5 million in 2017 to help pay for a water filtration system, according to the report.
Last month, an employee at the Daikin America plant died after being exposed to dangerous chemicals on the job, local TV station WAFF-48 reported. Last year, OSHA fined the company $40,482 for alleged hazardous chemical management and respiratory protection violations, according to the new report.
"In this day and time, we should have [jobs and food] out there that won't be as toxic to people," said Hampton.
The report authors issue a number of recommendations, such as manufacturers paying for PFAS cleanup in affected communities, the EPA banning the production of HCFC-22 as an intermediary in PFAS manufacturing, and restaurant chains removing PFAS from food wrappers. With PFAS already banned from food packaging in states including Washington and Connecticut, some chains, like McDonald's, have recently agreed to phase out PFAS-coated packaging.
EHN has reached out to Daikin for comment on the new report.
Banner photo credit: Crispin Semmens/flickr
The scientific community has known for decades that a group of widely-used chemicals is causing health harms across the globe, but effective policies aimed at curbing those impacts lag far behind the research, according to a new study.
The class of chemicals, known as PFAS (perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances), includes more than 5,000 individual chemicals with similar properties. PFAS don't readily break down once they're in the environment, so they can accumulate in animal and human tissues, earning them the nickname "forever chemicals."
The study, published Tuesday in the peer-reviewed journal Environmental Science & Technology, involved researchers from the U.S., Sweden, Switzerland, Belgium, Norway, the Czech Republic, and Denmark.
The researchers are calling for global changes to the way PFAS are manufactured and regulated including:
- Scientific collaboration to better understand the extent of PFAS contamination and its health impacts around the world;
- Bolstered data sharing between industries manufacturing PFAS, and scientists and policymakers;
- Consistency in PFAS measuring techniques;
- Improved PFAS waste management strategies;
- Better communication strategies related to the health harms of PFAS;
- And clear policy guidelines related to the manufacturing and cleanup of PFAS.
"Knowledge deficits are often put forward to delay concrete measures," said co-author Martin Scheringer, a researcher at the Institute of Biogeochemistry and Pollutant Dynamics in Zurich, in a statement. "But we already know enough about the harm being caused by these very persistent substances to take action to stop all non-essential uses and to limit exposure from legacy contamination."
The researchers' suggestions for new paths forward include taking a systematic inventory of all PFAS industries to identify current and former sites of emissions on a global scale; requiring retailers to know and publicly share where PFAS are present in their supply chains; limiting future use of PFAS to only essential uses; requiring manufacturers of PFAS to be financially responsible for their cleanup; and regulating the chemicals as a class rather than attempting to tackle all 5,000+ of them one by one.
In addition to being detected in food and takeout wrappers and boxes, PFAS are used in many kinds of nonstick and waterproof coatings. The chemicals have been detected in indoor air, and at troubling levels in drinking water supplies throughout the U.S. and around the globe. Exposure is linked to health effects including testicular and kidney cancers, decreased birth weights, thyroid disease, decreased sperm quality, high cholesterol, pregnancy-induced hypertension, asthma, and ulcerative colitis.
"A striking feature of PFAS is how they can cause harm to so many systems within our bodies— our livers, our kidneys, our immunity, our metabolism," Dr. Linda Birnbaum, Scientist Emeritus and former Director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, who was not involved in the study, said in a statement. "One path forward proposed in this study is to link up all of the research tools—biomonitoring, epidemiology, animal studies, in vitro studies, computer modelling, etc.—to help us understand the consequences of our exposures."
Related: Pennsylvania vows to regulate PFAS in drinking water—again—but regulations are at least two years away
The researchers also outline barriers to each of these proposed solutions, and recommend ways of overcoming them. For example, they note the difficulty of measuring low levels of specific PFAS in drinking water, but recommend new methods being developed to measure total PFAS content in drinking water and explore ways these more efficient, cost-effective methods could be shared between countries and municipalities to make them accessible.
The researchers also investigated who should pay for the cost of PFAS contamination, noting that individuals who get sick as a result of contamination often bear the financial burdens of those impacts (along with local health systems), while local governments and water authorities often bear the cost of cleaning up water contamination. They note that the plants manufacturing these chemicals are often in low-income communities and communities of color, which often have the highest health costs of PFAS exposure—a clear example of environmental injustice. Although PFAS are produced by a small number of companies, the pollution they produce has been distributed globally, so the researchers explore several existing models for making polluters cover the cost of environmental cleanup.
US PFAS regulations
Since 2016, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has recommended a non-enforceable health advisory limit of 70 parts per trillion (ppt) for PFAS in drinking water—a level scientists, several states, and other federal agencies have determined is too high to adequately protect people's health. The agency has repeatedly promised to enact more stringent standards for PFAS in drinking water, but so far those regulations have not materialized (though renewed efforts to regulate the chemicals at the federal level are currently underway).
In the meantime, around 10 states have proposed or enacted limits on PFAS in drinking water, leaving a patchwork of protections. Some states, like Pennsylvania, have spent years attempting to regulate the chemical but run into numerous delays. Several other states have sued manufacturers of PFAS in an attempt to cover the costs of cleaning them up. Other nations have faced similar challenges when it comes to protecting people from PFAS in drinking water—and drinking water is just one of many potential sources of widespread exposure to the chemicals.
"It is critical to prioritize our efforts so as not to be overwhelmed by the magnitude of the problem," said Dr. Carla Ng, a researcher at the University of Pittsburgh and lead author of the study, in a statement. "This paper identifies where focus is needed to effectively minimize environmental and human exposure to PFAS."
Banner photo credit: Bluewater Sweden/Unsplash
PFAS are used in paints, food packaging and even cosmetics. We know they are in our water, air, soil and bodies – but less about how they will affect us.
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The lawsuit filed in 2016 alleges 3M and other chemical makers in the Decatur, AL, area contaminated the Tennessee River with PFAs chemicals produced at their sites.
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The now-shuttered Barnstable County Fire and Rescue Training Academy is one of the most PFAS-polluted sites in the state, if not the country, according to hydrogeologist Tom Cambareri.
The Navy disclosed recently that it has found high levels of so-called "forever chemicals" in soil, groundwater, and streams — not only on the base but beyond its fence line.
Connecticut's health and environmental agencies believe there are pockets of contamination hiding throughout the state.
Advocates criticize military, state on PFAS; tour of old Wurtsmith AFB followed by documentary screening
A group of environmental advocates accused state and military authorities of lackluster response to legacy PFAS contamination, and pointed to a former nuclear bomber base near Lake Huron as Michigan's prime example.
Pennsylvania vows to regulate PFAS in drinking water—again—but regulations are at least two years away
The chemicals, linked to health problems including cancer and thyroid disease, have contaminated drinking water in Pittsburgh communities like Coraopolis and McKeesport.