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The Indiana Daily Student

opinion

OPINION: PFAS have been used to exploit ignorance of Americans for too long

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The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey found that PFAS are present in the blood of 97% of Americans.

PFAS stands for polyfluoroalkyl and perfluoroalkyl substances and they’re a class of 5,000 to 10,000 artificial chemicals containing highly toxic fluorinated chemicals. They’ve been produced since the mid 20th century.

Major chemical companies like DuPont, 3M and Chemours have outwitted the Environmental Protection Agency for decades, deliberately ignoring the harmful effects of PFAS, including multiple types of cancer, reproductive issues and developmental problems.

PFAS can be found in a variety of consumer products. A study conducted by Greenpeace found that PFAS are in products made by brands like North Face, Columbia, Patagonia, Adidas, Nike and Puma. PFAS are also found in other products such as pizza boxes, microwavable popcorn bags, food wrappers, nonstick pans and the water supply of millions of Americans. 

Perfluorooctanoic acid or PFOA is a chemical in the class of PFAS and the main ingredient in Teflon. Teflon was created by the company DuPont to create a non-stick coating that’s seen in many household items such as non-stick pans.

PFAS differ from other chemicals as they are known as “forever chemicals'' because of the strong carbon-fluoride bonds causing them to build up in the body and the environment.

In 2001, West Virginia residents discovered that Teflon contaminated the water supply of more than 70,000 people in Parkersburg. The lawsuit that transpired proved DuPont not only knew it was dumping harmful chemicals into the water supply but also neglected to warn its workers, local environmental officials and residents.

Keith Matheny of the Detroit Free Press said in 2019 “PFAS contamination is Michigan’s biggest environmental crisis in 40 years” even after the discovery that lead had contaminated the water supply in Flint, Michigan. 

“You don’t have to live near Chemours or DuPont or 3M to have exposure to these things,” Linda Birnbaum, the former head of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, said in an interview with the New York Times. 

“It is in the water. It is in our food. It’s in our homes and in our house dust. And depending where you live, it may be in our air.”

In 2010, Minnesota’s Attorney General’s office received documents outlining research done by 3M on PFAS. It showed “negative health effects in laboratory rats and other animals,” citing that 3M employees’ blood had become contaminated with the chemicals.

3M neglected its findings and continued to sell products containing PFAS regardless.

According to the New York Times, DuPont lied to North Carolina regulators about the health risks associated with PFAS in 2010 and told them it wasn’t dumping PFAS into Cape Fear River even though it has been dumping the chemicals since the 1980s. Cape Fear River is the primary water supply for 1.5 million Americans.

Many studies have linked PFAS to multiple types of cancer, reproductive problems, weakened immune systems, low birth weight, pregnancy-induced hypertension, ulcerative colitis, increased cholesterol, thyroid disease and weight gain. 

In 2018, an estimated 110 million Americans were exposed to PFAS through their tap water. Earlier this year scientists raised the number to more than 200 million Americans

Contamination happens outside the United States as well, as PFAS spread to countries such as Italy, China and the Netherlands.

The EPA has worked to phase out the two most harmful PFAS chemicals, PFOA and PFOS, starting this month. The EPA said it should be labeled hazardous and removed from drinking water by 2023. 

PFOA and PFOS are long-chained, carbon-rich chemicals. Chemical companies replaced them with short-chained chemicals containing fewer carbons to abide by EPA regulations. While the EPA found these short-chained PFAS are less toxic, they’re still linked to problems with the kidneys, the blood, the thyroids, the reproductive system, the liver and development in rodents.

With continuous new restrictions set by the EPA and entertained by Congress, chemical companies are likely to develop new chemicals with similar risks, such as the short-chained alternatives to PFOA and PFOS.

The PFAS Action Act of 2021 was passed by the House of Representatives in July and currently sits with the Senate and the Committee of Environment and Public Works. This bill would enact clean up for contaminated sites, inform and identify health risks, limit the production of other PFAS chemicals and tighten the EPA’s restrictions.

DuPont, Chemours and 3M are to blame for the mismanagement of PFAS. People must be educated not only about PFAS but their harmful effects as well. Unfortunately, action might be too little, too late as PFAS are everywhere, including in our bodies and in our drinking water.

If you visit this website, you are able to see if your area is contaminated with PFAS.

Jacob Spudich (he/him) is a freshman studying journalism and political science. He is a DJ for the WIUX student radio station, a member of Timmy Global Health and a huge Detroit Tigers fan.

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