Read the full article by Thomas W. Pearson (Sapiens)

“Every summer, Ruth and John Kowalski saw clouds of thick, dark smoke rise above the tree line. ‘For 40 years, there’d be black plumes coming up every day,’ John recalls.

The plumes drifted from a firefighting training facility in Marinette, Wisconsin, a city of roughly 10,000 people. Year after year, firefighters from around the world came to the Fire Technology Center to learn to use aqueous film-forming foams (AFFF). These foams extinguish flames fed by highly combustible substances such as jet fuels, petroleum greases, tars, oils, gasoline, and other industrial solvents and alcohols.

As the smoke cleared, foam residue soaked into the soil or seeped into local streams. Some was flushed into the sewer system, eventually turning up in Marinette’s wastewater treatment plant as a white froth so thick it blew around in the wind.

The Kowalskis live in the Town of Peshtigo, a wooded community just down the road—and downstream—from the fire school. Ruth works in education; John is a retired pipe fitter. They had barely paid any attention to the smoke and the foam—until a letter arrived in the mail.

It was sent by Arcadis, a multinational consulting firm hired to investigate groundwater contamination. The letter alerted Ruth and John to possible pollution of their well water from something they had never heard of: per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). These chemicals are key ingredients in the film barrier created by AFFF to smother a fire and prevent reignition.

The letter invited them to attend a meeting to learn about PFAS. And that was when the Kowalskis started thinking about health.

Ruth had recently been treated for thyroid disease, while John had faced prostate cancer. Memories of their children’s inexplicable health issues came flooding back. They pondered their grandchildren’s illnesses and developmental challenges. Ruth’s mother had had thyroid cancer, and now her 10-year-old granddaughter has thyroid disease. Several neighbors had suffered from cancers and unusual maladies.

Ruth and John were distraught. They had likely all been exposed for years. Suddenly, they found themselves trying to make sense of life in a contaminated community…”