Read the full article by Arlene Blum (The Hill)

“The haunting folk song refrain, ‘When will we ever learn?’ could apply well to the reckless manufacture of a class of harmful chemicals called perfluoroalky and polyfluoroalkyl (PFAS). These chemicals are useful in firefighting foam, water- and stain-proof textiles and many industrial applications. However, they are also known as “forever chemicals” because they never break down in the environment. 

The PFAS that have been well studied are found to contribute to cancer and a host of other health problems. A current worry is that PFAS can suppress the immune system, which may decrease our ability to fight the coronavirus — and PFAS are in all of us.

Brilliant detective work by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and New Jersey scientists recently uncovered a frightening case of PFAS pollution in the northeastern United States. Soil radiating out from a Solvay chemical plant in New Jersey is contaminated with PFAS. The chemicals also travel hundreds of miles on air currents and into neighboring states.

This latest contamination follows a similar saga in the Cape Fear River, which provides drinking water to hundreds of thousands in North Carolina. As in New Jersey, painstaking scientific sleuthing revealed that one chemical plant had contaminated an entire river system with PFAS. In 2017, Cape Fear Public Water Utility Authority filed a federal lawsuit against the chemical giants DuPont and Chemours, accusing them of “a conscious disregard of and indifference to the rights and safety of others” by polluting water, river sediments, soil and air. The companies had released PFAS into air and water for decades, despite knowing of health risks from such compounds, according to the utility.  

A maddening similarity between the New Jersey and North Carolina incidents is that PFAS used at the chemical plants were found to be toxic and phased out — only to be replaced by chemical cousins with similar structure, function and toxicity. Also, the identity of the replacements — found in air, soil and sometimes even the bodies of the local population — is hidden from the public and the EPA scientists as confidential business information.

The New Jersey contamination story was recently published in Science with little fanfare and accompanied by an excellent commentary that points to the problems in our chemical regulatory system that allowed this to happen once again. In North Carolina, the PFAS chemical (GenX) that replaced the old PFAS contaminant has been found to produce similar negative health impacts as its predecessor. However, in New Jersey, little is known about the health impacts of the replacement Solvay chemicals, and human health studies are beginning in a low-income community near the chemical plant.