The Big Bang of the nationwide “forever chemicals” crisis was the revelation in 2001 that PFOA, a toxic compound used to make Teflon, had contaminated the drinking water for 70,000 people near a DuPont factory in West Virginia. Pressure from the Environmental Protection Agency forced DuPont and other companies to phase out PFOA, and they agreed not to use it after 2015.
So why are DuPont and its spinoff company Chemours still discharging PFOA from their facilities?
Last week, Rep. Harley Rouda (D-Calif.), who chairs the Environment Subcommittee of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, sent a letter to DuPont and Chemours asking why they’re still discharging a highly toxic substance they claim not to have used in years.
PFOA is the most notorious of the thousands of fluorinated chemicals known as PFAS, which have contaminated drinking water for an estimated 200 million-plus Americans. Very small doses of PFOA and some other PFAS have been linked to kidney and testicular cancer, thyroid issues, high cholesterol, reproductive and developmental harms and reduced effectiveness of vaccines. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says these chemicals pollute the bodies of virtually all Americans, including newborn babies.
PFOA and other PFAS are called “forever chemicals” because they never break down in the environment. PFAS discharged over the past 50 years by companies like DuPont and 3M – which knew it was dangerous as early as the 1950s – will stay in the environment until it’s actively remediated.
Rouda’s letter asks DuPont about its ongoing PFOA discharges at its Circleville Works plant, in Ohio, and Chemours about its Washington Works facility, in Parkersburg, W.V., the most notorious PFAS contamination site in the world.
The Parkersburg facility was owned by DuPont until it spun off its chemical division into Chemours, in 2015. For decades, DuPont dumped PFAS into the Ohio River in West Virginia, killing farm animals and poisoning the water of surrounding communities. The contamination in Parkersburg and subsequent lawsuit were the subject of an acclaimed feature film released last year.
There are no federally enforceable limits on any PFAS in drinking water, groundwater or soils, or any requirements to clean up PFAS under the federal Superfund law. Only five states have placed limits on a handful of PFAS, and the EPA has the ability to test for only 29 PFAS in drinking water.
Rouda asked about the discharges because both companies have said publicly they no longer use PFOA. Chemours claims it has “never made or used PFOA.” Yet data from the EPA’s Enforcement and Compliance History Online database shows ongoing discharges from both the Circleville and Parkersburg facilities. For example, daily monitoring updates for the Parkersburg site reported 323.5 pounds of PFOA discharged in 2019.
The continued releases could be an indication that the two companies are still using PFOA, despite their assurances otherwise. If so, that would be a serious breach of public trust. But there are other possible explanations for these discharges. There could be PFOA in products or mixtures used at the facilities. Or “legacy” PFOA remaining in water used at the facilities could be showing up – an alarming reminder of the chemical’s persistence in the environment.
Even if DuPont and Chemours are being honest with regulators about their use of PFOA, we should be alarmed at its continued presence in discharges as legacy contamination, because it underscores how merely ending the use of a toxic substance like PFOA will not make the contamination disappear. History shows that even decades after being banned, some chemicals’ ongoing impact continues to be deeply harmful to health and the environment.
The ongoing cleanup of another group of forever chemicals, polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, underscores the gravity and longevity of the PFAS problem.
PCBs were manufactured by Monsanto beginning in 1929 and are linked to various health harms, including cancer, reproductive harms and immune effects. They were widely used for a myriad of industrial purposes, until they were banned as a class by Congress, in 1976.
But 44 years later, PCBs remain prevalent in the environment. Just this summer, Bayer, which acquired Monsanto in 2018, agreed to pay $650 million to 2,500 cities, counties and ports to clean up PCB contamination. And there may be still more contamination: A 2015 study found that PCBs could be leaching from building materials in nearly 26,000 schools.
The challenge of cleaning up PCBs pales in comparison to the coming PFAS crisis. The EPA has identified just over 200 PCBs, and there are far more PFAS chemicals. The EPA’s most recent update of its CompTox database identified more than 9,000 different compounds related to PFAS. The EPA has reported that at least 600 PFAS are being used in commerce. A recent study identified over 200 categories of use for more than 1,400 individual PFAS chemicals.
And unlike PCBs, which were banned and subject to cleanup regulations, PFAS remain largely unregulated. Manufacturers have agreed to phaseouts of only a handful. And some companies that are not subject to those agreements have admitted they still use PFOA.
Even if the ongoing discharges in Ohio and West Virginia can be attributed to legacy discharges, that’s little comfort. It underscores how even if industry stops using PFOA or other PFAS chemicals, they will be with us for a long time – and that as we try to get rid of the PFOA in the environment, it’s being replaced with newer kinds of PFAS that are less studied and, research shows, potentially as dangerous, with many of the same toxicity concerns as old PFAS chemicals.
For example, regulators in New Jersey have found that the manufacturer Solvay has replaced PFNA, a PFAS chemical it phased out in 2010, with a new PFAS chemical that is toxic to the liver at potentially even lower doses than PFNA or PFOA. As reported last year by Sharon Lerner of The Intercept, the EPA has allowed more than 40 new PFAS chemicals on the market reported to pose “substantial risk.”
Congress must take decisive action to address the PFAS problem, including:
- Designating PFAS hazardous substances under our Superfund law
- Setting health-protective limits on PFAS in drinking water
- Limiting discharges of PFAS into the air and water
- Placing a moratorium on the introduction of new PFAS chemicals
- Banning non-essential uses of PFAS
- Funding cleanup and drinking water treatment
DuPont and Chemours must respond quickly to Rouda’s inquiry and account for their ongoing discharges of PFOA. If they have misled the public about ongoing use of this toxic chemical, they should be held accountable. Without aggressive action, PFAS chemicals will continue polluting people and the planet for centuries to come.