Read the full article by Esmé E Deprez (Bloomberg)
“Kyla Bennett, an ecologist and attorney in Easton, Massachusetts, subscribes to a school of thought called antispeciesism, which considers the preferential treatment of any animal species over another, humans included, to be unethical. So she’s long railed against the use of chemicals to kill insects, especially over a 26-square-mile stretch of freshwater wetlands and soggy woodlands near her home. For thousands of years, the Wampanoag people sought refuge and sustenance in the area and considered it alive with spirits. Today it’s called the Hockomock Swamp and retains lore of the paranormal, with reported sightings of Bigfoot and UFOs, but it’s mostly a place to walk dogs and paddle canoes. It’s also home to an uncommon species of mosquito that carries a rare but highly lethal brain-swelling virus called eastern equine encephalitis, or EEE. To curb its spread, state officials have long used a pesticide named Anvil 10+10, spraying it from airplanes overhead.
In the early months of the Covid-19 pandemic, Bennett was stuck in bed, recovering from surgery to remove a baseball-size tumor that had been pushing against her brain. It was the first spring in 30 years she didn’t visit the vernal pools. She’d kept working nonetheless, as the director of science policy at Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), a nonprofit government watchdog. In addition to advocating against pesticides, she’d turned her attention to an enormous class of toxic, man-made chemicals called PFAS, short for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances.
PFAS compounds are characterized by their chains of carbon atoms bonded to fluorine atoms. The bonds are ultrastrong, ultrastable and paramount to their value in the manufacturing of semiconductors, firefighting foam, smartphones, medical devices, aircraft and solar panels. They enable consumer products to better repel water (as in raincoats), fend off stains (carpets) and resist grease (microwave popcorn bags). The persistence of those carbon-fluorine bonds, though, prevent PFAS from naturally degrading—earning them the nickname ‘forever chemicals.’ In water, soil or blood, they just keep piling up. The consequences, which can take years to materialize, can be devastating: Researchers have linked PFAS exposure to cancers, birth defects, infertility, high cholesterol and more.
In the summer of 2020, Bennett’s work on pesticides and PFAS unexpectedly converged. By then, public awareness of the dangers posed by PFAS was mounting. Researchers were finding the compounds in vastly more products than was previously understood. The film Dark Waters had just recounted the decades-long PFAS poisoning of towns in West Virginia and Ohio and the subsequent cover-up by chemical giant DuPont. Government agencies were tightening water advisories based on the latest science, showing smaller and smaller amounts to be unsafe.
When the drinking water in Bennett’s town of Easton tested positive for the forever chemicals, it felt at first like a mystery. Easton wasn’t home to any of the obvious PFAS emitters that explained contamination elsewhere, such as firefighting training facilities, military bases or chemical plants. Then, while still recovering from her surgery, Bennett thought of the Hockomock Swamp. In her mind, she overlaid a map of Massachusetts towns with PFAS-contaminated water onto a map of Anvil 10+10 sprayings. And then she felt a pang in her gut.
Over the next couple of months, a colleague of Bennett’s at PEER tracked down white plastic jugs of Anvil 10+10 and shipped samples of the liquid to a Pennsylvania laboratory called Eurofins for testing. The results confirmed Bennett’s suspicions: The pesticide contained PFAS compounds. And not just any PFAS. Among them was PFOA, used for decades to make countless products, including DuPont’s Teflon nonstick cookware. It belonged to a subclass called long-chain PFAS, compounds found to be so dangerous that the US Environmental Protection Agency had moved to effectively ban them in 2015.
Bennett alerted state officials, who ran their own tests confirming the results and notified their federal counterparts. The EPA started an investigation. Clarke Mosquito, Anvil’s manufacturer, examined its supply chain and found no PFAS listed among its ingredients. Months passed; everyone was stumped.
In January 2021, the EPA publicly revealed what its testing of Anvil 10+10 had pinpointed as the source of the contamination: The chemicals were migrating into the pesticide solution from the walls of the plastic containers in which it was sold. The containers had been ‘fluorinated.’ This process, buried deep in the supply chain, strengthened the plastic by exposing it to fluorine gas. But it also generated PFAS compounds, which were leaching into the liquid stored inside.
The vast majority of PFAS were—and remain—virtually unregulated. By this time, though, the EPA had worked for years to cut off production of PFOA and similar long-chain PFAS for the sake of public and environmental health. The discovery that fluorination continued to generate them anyway undermined the agency’s painstaking work and placed whomever was responsible in violation of US law.
The EPA eventually determined that just one company in the US was to blame: Inhance Technologies LLC. The Houston-based company was small, with $46 million in annual revenue in 2018 and only a few hundred employees. Yet it had built a domestic monopoly in fluorination over four decades, and with 20 facilities worldwide, it was a dominant global player as well.
More than two-and-a-half years later, Inhance continues to fluorinate plastics, despite a demand from the EPA to stop and a lawsuit by the US Department of Justice. The public, meanwhile, remains largely in the dark about the toxic PFAS generated in the process, even as the EPA has learned that fluorination’s reach goes far beyond mosquito spray.
Inhance doesn’t publicly disclose its customers but says it fluorinates more than 200 million plastic items every year. Those items touch virtually every facet of the US economy. They’re used to hold weedkillers, gasoline, household cleaners, cosmetics and shampoo. It’s not just plastic bottles: Inhance treats caps, trigger sprayers, mascara wands, fuel tanks, syringes, the cold packs used to transport vaccines and the industrial-size drums that store bulk ingredients prior to bottling. Its customers include providers of water-treatment chemicals, manufacturers of medical disinfectant and co-packers of bulk fragrances. Food companies and large soda companies have used Inhance for decades. A 2018 investor presentation seen by Bloomberg Businessweek listed some of the world’s most recognizable consumer brands as end users of the company’s treated plastics, including Bath & Body Works, Bayer, BMW, Estée Lauder, Husqvarna and L’Oréal. Fluorinated plastics, and the PFAS they contain, are likely on store shelves everywhere and in every American home.” …