Why forever chemicals aren’t going away

forever chemicals, chemical, environment

By Jennifer Sizeland

In 1998, a U.S. lawyer called Robert Bilott discovered a truly shocking secret while investigating a lawsuit in Parkersburg, West Virginia. He was representing a farmer called Earl Tennant whose cattle were dying from horrific ailments, and upon further investigation it was discovered that all their teeth were black. Little did Bilott know this would be the start of a lifelong battle against so-called ‘forever chemicals’.

In the case of Earl Tennant, this forever chemical was PFOA, created by chemical company DuPont to cover cookware with a Teflon coating. This unregulated substance took on a life of its own once it was released into the natural environment from the factory. Once the chemical was used, spilled or disposed of in such a way that it could be  transported by rain and enter surface water, it could permeate soil and contaminate groundwater, and at that point there is no going back.

The chemicals got into the drinking water and started making both people and animals like livestock sick. After much legal wrangling, the company was forced to admit that it was a dangerous chemical and has paid out $4 billion in compensation since. The company itself had known the chemical was potentially dangerous since conducting its own testing in the 1950s

PFOA is present in the blood of 99% of the world’s population

However, this all came too late for the world, as the damage had been done. Global testing found that PFOA was present in the blood of 99% of the world’s population. PFAs have found their way around the world as they’re reproduced in factories that make all kinds of things from firefighting foam to carpets, and are present in these products that get exported throughout the globe.

PFOA is part of a group called PFAs, known as ‘forever chemicals’ because once they’re in our bodies, they don’t leave. These chemicals are manufactured to be resistant to water, heat and oil so they don’t break down in the environment or in your body, and instead just build up over time. It’s the bioaccumulation that is so dangerous, and they have been definitively linked to kidney cancer, testicular cancer, thyroid disease, high cholesterol, ulcerative colitis, and pregnancy-induced hypertension. The reason they persist and don’t break down is due to the carbon-fluorine bond, which is incredibly strong.

In the U.S., PFOA was phased out in 2002, remaining in products and emissions until 2015, but much like the chemicals themselves, problems with forever chemicals persist. There are over 4,700 types of PFAs that exist and PFOA is just one of them. Other types of PFA chemicals are still used in a variety of everyday things like makeup, waterproof clothing, food packaging, fire retardants, carpets, textiles, rubbers, plastics, electronics and even some kinds of dental floss. 

While these types of PFA have essentially replaced PFOA, they still have a similar set of consequences, including reduced response to vaccines, liver damage, miscarriage risk, kidney cancer, increased cholesterol, testicular cancer and thyroid disease amongst others. As suggested by the original effects it had on cattle, it’s not just humans that suffer, it’s wildlife too.

Forever chemicals are casting a long shadow over our ability to reproduce, with Shanna Swan’s study predicting that our current chemical usage means that sperm counts could drop to zero by 2045. She points the finger not only at PFAs, but phthalates and BPA too. Nowadays you can buy various ‘BPA-free’ products, but if the replacement is bisphenol S or F then the problem remains the same. Even products that are ‘phthalate-free’ may contain similar problematic chemicals. 

With human fertility in the balance, it seems that the only way forward is for these chemicals to be properly tested, controlled and regulated. In the face of overwhelming scientific evidence, we need stringent methods to reduce the chemical substances that are accumulating in our bodies and to stop introducing new ones.

Moving forward: PFA’s impact around the world

Worryingly, the British government has no firm plans to test for PFAS, which means that even though these chemicals are used in the UK, we don’t have any data on the areas at risk. Across the world, Australia has areas at risk due to the use of firefighting foam against bushfires and Italy has areas that have been highly contaminated due to chemical plants, so this testing is essential for all countries. 

In 2020, DuPont and Chemours were questioned on why they were still releasing PFOA even though they claim not to make it. Earlier that same year it was discovered that DuPont had outsourced its PFA commitments to smaller companies, who won’t be able to pay out for the ongoing lawsuits as people continue to get sick with dangerously high concentrations of PFAs in their bloodstreams. 

The EU has lowered the concentration of PFAs that can be present within drinking water and they’re considering an outright ban on them to prevent future water contamination. Delaying vital testing means that these dangerous chemicals have more time to accumulate in the areas where they are present, heightening the risk of making people seriously ill. In the original lawsuit in Parkersburg, Virginia, there were payouts for 3,500 individual people who had diseases that were linked to the PFAs in their bodies. The Miteni chemical plant in Italy has exposed over 350,000 people to PFA-contaminated water and is now facing a lawsuit from residents who’ve developed cancer and other illnesses. Lawsuits continue in the U.S. and more people affected by this type of chemical poisoning are now being discovered as awareness about the link between certain diseases and PFA use grows around the world.

While these chemicals present an environmental, ethical and economic quandary that affects the whole world, one thing is certain. PFAs are not going away any time soon.

Graphic courtesy of Abigail Takahashi