Read the full article by Zoya Teirstein (Grist)

“David Peters’s nightmare began on a Monday in the spring of 2016, just before the end of the work day. Peters was the assistant public works director for the city of Stuart, a community of 18,000 on southeast Florida’s tranquil Treasure Coast. One of his many duties was to help oversee the municipal drinking water supply, a responsibility he took seriously. That afternoon, Peters was told that an administrative aide for the U.S. representative from Stuart’s district had left a message with the city asking someone to call her back.

‘Are you prepared for this?’ the aide asked when Peters returned her call. The rest came very quickly. The state had identified a class of chemicals linked to cancer called per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, also known as PFAS or ‘forever chemicals,’ in Stuart’s drinking water supply. The chemicals were at dangerously high levels. 

Peters, who had never even heard of PFAS before, emailed Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection for more information. The department explained that in 2012, the federal Environmental Protection Agency had added, for the first time, two types of PFAS — pronounced PEA’-fass — to its list of ‘unregulated contaminants’ that public water systems must test for. Stuart had run tests in 2014 and 2015 and found both chemicals, PFOS and PFOA, in its water supply. But the city and the state environmental agency hadn’t thought much of it, since the contamination, at a combined 200 parts per trillion, or ppt, was not thought to be at a level that was harmful to human health.

But in May 2016, days before the legislative aide called Peters, the U.S. EPA issued a new policy: Levels of the two PFAS in drinking water, the agency said in a national health advisory, should not exceed 70 ppt. 

What this meant was that Stuart’s public water utility — winner of multiple awards, including a statewide ‘best-tasting water’ competition — had been unintentionally poisoning its constituents. Subsequent testing showed some of the city’s individual wells had levels of PFAS higher than 1,000 ppt. There was no way to turn back the clock. People had been drinking the poisoned water, and no one knew for how long. 

Thus began, Peters told lawyers in a 2021 deposition, a ‘week in hell.’ 

Peters collected himself and began to devise a plan. By the end of the week, the city had discovered that levels of PFAS in water from all of the city’s municipal wells averaged out to 65 ppt, just 5 ppt below the EPA’s new standard, and had pulled its three most contaminated wells offline. Peters and other officials weren’t satisfied. They had been caught off guard once, and they weren’t willing to let it happen again. 

‘We weren’t about to take a chance on getting caught with a system that wouldn’t treat down to below detection levels under any circumstance,’ Peters said in the deposition. The city’s goal since 2016 has been to get PFAS contamination in its drinking water supply to ‘non-detect,’ or as close to zero ppt as possible. 

But achieving non-detect status has proved to be wildly expensive and, ultimately, out of reach for a city of Stuart’s size and means. Conventional water-purification techniques, such as the use of chlorine, don’t work on tiny and persistent forever chemicals. So the city implemented a new water scrubbing system in order to rid its 30 wells of PFAS. The system, which is called an ion-exchange treatment, relies on magnetlike resins to attract PFAS molecules. The resins, once loaded up with contaminants, have to be incinerated to destroy the chemicals. The city has spent roughly $20 million keeping its PFAS levels below 30 ppt — a maximum limit Stuart set for itself — thus far. It estimates that the cost of replacing the resin, which cannot be reused, is approximately $2 million per year. That cost will increase incrementally as the city strives to get its contamination level down to zero. 

‘We can’t afford to spend that kind of money every year,’ Peters said in his deposition. ‘We’re a small utility, a small municipality.’ 

Stuart’s efforts to clean up its water are at the heart of a lawsuit of epic proportions that could have wide-ranging financial repercussions for more than 100 million Americans in the years to come. The trial, which was set to begin in early June, has been delayed as the defendants mull a settlement. If the case goes to trial as planned, Stuart’s lawyers plan to argue in federal court that the companies that manufactured and distributed PFAS not only contaminated Stuart’s water supply, but did so knowingly for decades. They will make the case that those companies, not the city or its residents, should cover the cost of cleanup for Stuart — and for any other city with similarly contaminated drinking water. 

The question underpinning the case is one that has consumed Peters’s professional life since 2016: Once you know there’s poison in the well, who’s responsible for getting rid of it? 

PFAS do not naturally break down in the environment over time. Their resistance to decay is what makes them useful. It’s also what makes them dangerous.

In 1938, a scientist at DuPont De Nemours and Company, commonly known as DuPont, discovered the first PFAS chemical that would be widely used by Americans in the home — Teflon, the patented name for the type of forever chemical that makes certain cookware nonstick. But the multinational chemical conglomerate 3M quickly became the nation’s chief producer of PFAS. The company manufactured the chemicals for use in its own products and sold them to other chemical companies, like DuPont, for their products, too. PFOA, PFOS, and the thousands of other obscurely named acronymic chemicals under the PFAS umbrella were added to millions of products Americans used — and still use — on a regular basis: pizza boxes, seltzer cans, contact lenses, dental floss, mascara, rugs, sofas. 

3M started winding down PFAS production in the 2000s under pressure from the EPA. The company recently announced that it will cease production of forever chemicals entirely by 2025. But the hundreds of millions of pounds of the chemicals the company produced for more than half a century still persist, indefinitely, in the environment. They’re also lingering inside of us: in our blood and our excrement, primarily via the foods we eat and the water we drink.

A growing body of research on the health ramifications of years of sustained exposure to PFAS paints a frightening picture: The chemicals have a disturbing affinity for blood. Once they find their way to the bloodstream, they stick to blood cells as they course through every organ in the body. Studies show PFAS can weaken immune systems and contribute to long-term illnesses like diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and cancer — specifically, testicular, kidney, and prostate cancers. A recent study linked PFAS in drinking water and household products such as food packaging to startling decreases in fertility in women. Studies on prenatal and childhood exposure to PFAS show adverse developmental effects, including low birth weight and accelerated puberty. 

Since Stuart’s water crisis in 2016, the body of research illuminating the harmful health effects of PFAS has become more robust, prompting the EPA to take more forceful steps to limit consumer exposure to these chemicals. Earlier this year, the EPA proposed a set of new guidelines for six PFAS, including PFOA and PFOS. Unlike its 2016 health advisory standards, these limits — 4 parts per trillion, down from 70 ppt — are enforceable, meaning that water-supply managers must adhere to them or face fines. It’s the first time the agency has taken such a step, a move that underscores just how poisonous the EPA believes PFAS to be, even in minuscule amounts. The decision to regulate PFAS represents a huge win for public health. That win will come at a cost. 

The new standard, once it becomes official later this year, will trigger a nationwide effort to rid drinking water supplies of forever chemicals. The projected costs of eliminating PFAS from the water supply are astronomical, beyond the scope of what cities, utilities, and the average consumer can afford. Preliminary estimates suggest that the price tag on filtering forever chemicals out of America’s drinking water is more than $3.8 billion per year. That cost will get passed on to consumers, unless the companies responsible for creating the contamination in the first place are forced to pay. That’s where Stuart’s lawsuit against 3M comes in. 

The product at the center of the lawsuit, which will be heard in the U.S. District Court for the District of South Carolina, is called aqueous film-forming foam, or AFFF, which has been used by the U.S. military and local fire departments, including Stuart’s, across the nation. The foam’s key ingredient — what makes it so effective at putting out fires — is PFAS. Stuart is arguing that 3M and other manufacturers of ingredients used in firefighting foam knowingly pulled off one of the largest mass poisonings in American history and, crucially, that they hid what they knew about PFAS from the government and the general public in order to continue selling their products. 

3M and the other defendants in the case maintain that their products can’t be tied to the plaintiff’s PFAS contamination and therefore they are not liable for the cost of cleaning it up. 3M ‘will vigorously defend its record of environmental stewardship,’ the company said in a statement to Grist. ‘3M will continue to remediate PFAS and address litigation by defending ourselves in court or through negotiated resolutions, all as appropriate.’

3M has settled multiple PFAS-related lawsuits since 2005, including multimillion dollar settlements with Minnesota and Michigan. But the company has never admitted liability for the contamination the lawsuits alleged.

Stuart’s lawsuit is what lawyers call a ‘bellwether case’ — it’s the first of more than 4,000 lawsuits that have been filed by cities, utilities, and individuals against 3M and other manufacturers of AFFF. Lawyers on both sides carefully chose Stuart as the most representative plaintiff out of the thousands of cases after analyzing the city’s water samples, reading through thousands of documents in the legal process known as discovery, and even exploring the city in person. Stuart’s case will serve as a litmus test for the lawsuits in line behind it, determining how lawyers for the other plaintiffs move forward with their respective arguments. If Stuart succeeds, 3M could be on the hook for one of the biggest mass tort payouts in U.S. history. If it fails, everyday Americans could see their water bills balloon in the years to come.

‘3M is a corporate giant that was built in no small part on the profits of these PFAS chemicals. They contaminated drinking water supplies and people across the United States,’ David Andrews, a senior scientist at the Environmental Working Group, an environmental health nonprofit, told Grist. ‘Holding them accountable is significant, both in terms of direct cost to consumers but … also as a signal to companies that produce industrial chemicals about the long-term costs of some of these chemistry decisions.’ 

Grist spoke with the plaintiffs’ lawyers and reviewed hundreds of documents filed in court to build a narrative account of the years leading up to Stuart’s discovery in 2016, including details about what 3M knew in the 1970s about the dangers its products posed to the general public. Some of the information in this article, including testimony in which a former 3M toxicologist admits that global PFAS contamination can be linked to 3M, has never been reported before. 

‘We’re dealing with something that is unprecedented in scope and scale,’ Rob Bilott, the environmental attorney whose work investigating the chemical industry’s role in manufacturing forever chemicals was instrumental in bringing public attention to PFAS in the early 2000s, told Grist. Bilott, who initially sued DuPont for poisoning communities in West Virginia, is also involved in this new round of litigation. 

‘It’s going to be incredibly expensive to deal with this,’ Bilott said. ‘I think it’s important for the public to know how much this company knew about the hazards of these materials.'”…