In the water we drink and the products we use to protect ourselves, PFAS are everywhere

Laura Paskus

December 8, 2020

The Boston Globe reports that PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, have been found in the pesticides that the state has used for two decades to spray millions of acres in Massachusetts for mosquito control.  

According to the story by David Abel: 

The amount of some of the chemicals found in the pesticide — which has been used in at least 25 other states — exceeds recent safety limits imposed by the state for drinking water. Given the amount of pesticide used, and how widely it has been dispersed over the years, specialists say it’s likely that the chemicals have leached into ground water and other water sources. 

In Colorado, state agencies are looking into how much PFAS make it into waterways and then onto crops and consumer’s plates. According to a story from CBSN Denver, “The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment and the Colorado Department of Agriculture are examining the potential contamination of irrigation waterways in areas that have previously been tested for contamination of drinking water.” 

That news report also links to a recent study from the Colorado School of Mines that models how PFAS might make “their way through irrigation systems and into edible plants.”  

Bloomberg Law reports on the fears firefighters have over exposure to PFAS and a lawsuit in California that focuses not only on exposure via firefighting foams known to contain PFAS, but also on the protective gear they wore that contained the toxic substances. Elizabeth Pritzker of Pritzker Levine LLP is representing more than 20 firefighters in a lawsuit against manufacturers, including 3M Co., W.L. Gore & Associates, and Johnson Controls Inc. Andrew Wallender and Fatima Hussein report: 

The plaintiffs were all diagnosed with cancers—nine with prostate cancer like [firefighter Paul] Cotter—and had PFAS in their blood well above national averages, which Pritzker called “a substantial causational link.”  

“We think it’s going to bring about change in the industry, and ideally give them compensation for their injuries,” she said of her lawsuit.  

The companies have all denied wrongdoing. A spokesperson for 3M said that 3M Scott Fire & Safety “uses limited quantities of certain fluoropolymers in components of firefighter protective equipment.” 

This is clearly a problem for firefighters everywhere—and the challenge of protecting firefighters and local waters seems immense. Some states have been moving forward with such efforts, including banning the use of foams with PFAS, tracking their use and warning well owners after a fire has been extinguished on their property, and buying up the toxic foams local departments have on hand.  

Gregory B. Hladky writes about the efforts in Connecticut: 

All over Connecticut, fire departments faced with dangerous fuel and chemical fires are routinely spraying this type of hazardous PFAS foam on roads, private property, at marinas and industrial sites. 

In September and October alone, PFAS foam was used to extinguish fires in Greenwich, Fairfield, Stamford, Norwalk, Milford, East Granby, and Woodstock, according to state records. 

“We get lists of [PFAS] discharges by fire departments… sometimes dozens of times a month,” [Ray Frigon, an environmental analyst with the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection] said in a recent interview. 

But, Hladky continues, those efforts are lagging: “The COVID-19 pandemic has caused delays in the state’s efforts on PFAS, and questions about safely disposing or storing these hazardous firefighting chemicals are also becoming a potentially costly headache.” 

Meanwhile, the Union of Concerned Scientists published a piece, “What Lessons Should We Learn from the PFAS Crisis?” 

Among other things, Lauren Richter, Alissa Cordner, and Phil Brown look at the history of U.S. chemical regulation and the “tremendous pressure” the chemical industry exerted during 1970s when the Toxic Control Substances Act was negotiated 

They write:  

What does this mean today? When we interviewed scientists, exposed community members, regulators, and industry staff about PFAS, we were frequently told that our society’s ignorance about PFAS is a direct consequence of TSCA’s weaknesses. We learned that chemicals are typically approved in a pro forma fashion that is rushed through EPA and that hides chemical composition due to industry capacity to claim trade secret confidentiality. Hence, most chemicals are inadequately regulated, unmonitored, not tested for in the environment, and largely not treated in our drinking water and sewage treatment facilities. 

Lastly, The Intercept’s Sharon Lerner reports that PFAS have been found in hundreds of additional products, ranging from climbing ropes and guitar strings to eye shadow and lip liner.  

Lerner’s story provides a useful overview of how PFAS are used in industrial and personal products, and how closely companies guard information about what’s in the products we slather on our bodies, pour into a glass at dinner, or use to sanitize our hands. 

If you’ve been affected by PFAS contamination in your community here in New Mexico, call our tip line at (505) 433-7242. To read more coverage of PFAS in New Mexico visit “Groundwater War: New Mexico’s Toxic Threat,” which includes a timeline of events and studies on PFAS.