This is the third installment of our series on “PFAS & the Chemistry of Concealment.” Read the first two pieces on how chemical companies covered up the dangers of FPAS and on industry efforts to sway lawmakers on PFAS regulations. Read the full report here.
When Teflon hit the market in the mid-20th century, it was a near-instant money-maker. Companies flooded the shelves with it. Thousands more of what we now know as PFAS “forever chemicals” soon followed, boasting non-stick, waterproof, and stain-repelling properties.
But these seemingly miraculous chemicals created a public health crisis on an unimaginable scale. PFAS now contaminate our water (including bottled water), our food, and our bodies. They’re in the blood of 97% of people in the United States. And they’re creating all sorts of health problems in the process.
Now, chemical companies are spending millions of dollars to lobby regulators and avoid accountability. Food & Water Watch is fighting back by working to expose the crisis and demand the protections we need. Here’s what you need to know.
PFAS Wreak Havoc Throughout Our Bodies
Since the creation of Teflon, nearly 15,000 PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, have inundated the planet. They all have similar properties that make them unnaturally long-lasting and harmful to our health. They don’t break down easily in the environment and, without intervention, they’ll be on this Earth long into our grandchildren’s lives.
Now, we can link PFAS exposure to problems in almost every part of the body. Here are just a few recent discoveries:
- The brain: PFAS can interfere with brain functions like attention and short-term memory.
- Hormones: Research links PFAS to Type 2 diabetes, polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS), thyroid problems, and delayed puberty.
- Bones: PFAS can lower bone health and density.
- Reproduction: Research links PFAS to reproductive harm and lower birth weights, which have a big impact on babies’ long-term health.
- Immune system: Exposure to PFAS interferes with the immune system and is linked to lower vaccine effectiveness, including those for COVID-19.
- Cancers: The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has classified two of the oldest PFAS as likely carcinogens.
One study estimated that in the U.S., health-related costs from PFAS pollution could range anywhere from $5.5 to $63 billion. But the toll they take on families’ health and wellbeing is immeasurable.
The PFAS Public Health Crisis Is an Environmental Injustice
These health problems are a widespread risk. PFAS now contaminate nearly half of drinking water sources in the U.S. But communities near facilities that make, use, and release PFAS are most at risk.
This is an environmental justice issue, due to the historical trend of siting toxic facilities (including those that make or dump PFAS) near Black, Brown, and low-income neighborhoods. Drinking water systems that serve people of color are more likely to be near sources of PFAS pollution, and they’re more likely to have contamination levels higher than state standards.
This means not only higher risks of devastating health problems but huge economic costs, as well. PFAS contamination can shut down businesses and tank property values. Environmental clean-up and monitoring are expensive, especially considering the scale of the problem.
So far, filtering costs have fallen on water utilities — which may pay for them by raising rates. This could deepen the growing nationwide water affordability crisis. And it means families could have to pay to clean up the corporate pollution that’s poisoning them.
The EPA has proposed drinking water limits for PFAS that utilities will have to comply with once finalized. However, about 23 million housing units nationwide get water from individual household wells. Since these wells don’t fall under the EPA’s proposed limits, which apply only to community water systems, families would have to pay for expensive testing and remediation.
This creates a major barrier for low-income well owners to protect themselves from PFAS. For example, in North Carolina, low-income households of color are 10 times less likely to test their water and four times less likely to treat it than white, affluent well-owners.
PFAS Adds to Fracking’s Threats to Public Health
PFAS are also tightly tied to another public health threat: that of fracking. And the fracking fluid used to extract oil and gas has become one major concern.
Fracking fluid is a cocktail of brine, sand, and mystery chemicals, many of which companies are legally allowed to keep secret. But we’re now learning that PFAS may be an ingredient in that toxic cocktail.
Recently, researchers have found evidence that frackers have used PFAS in fracking fluids in thousands of wells across several states. In Texas, oil and gas companies injected at least 43,000 pounds of PTFE/Teflon into wells across 73 counties.
However, because companies can keep so many fracking chemicals secret, the use and impact of PFAS in drilling could be far greater than we know. And this is especially dangerous because of all the documented ways fracking fluid contaminates our water and environment.
To make matters worse, in recent years, Big Oil and Gas has lobbied to sway lawmakers on PFAS. We recently dug into lobbying reports from five oil majors and two of the industry’s trade groups. All reports mentioning “PFAS” from 2019 to 2022 total more than $95 million in potential lobbying power towards PFAS and other issues.1Lobbying reporting forms include all issues that a firm or individual lobbies on behalf of their client during the reporting period. They don’t report spending by bill or issue, so we can’t know the total spent lobbying on PFAS specifically. You can learn more about our methodology in the full report, linked below.
Learn more about the lobbying dollars poured into the PFAS fight in our recent report, “PFAS & the Chemistry of Concealment.”
PFAS Makers and Users Are Trying to Dodge Accountability
It’s not just Big Oil lobbying on PFAS. Our research uncovered how PFAS makers, some allied trade groups, and other industries impacted by PFAS regulation are spending big bucks to influence lawmakers.
As the extent of PFAS pollution enters the national spotlight, our government is now considering new laws and regulations to clean up PFAS and prevent more pollution. It’s also considering measures to hold companies accountable for the crisis they’ve created.
To protect public health, we need to pass these regulations and more. The federal government must start regulating PFAS as a class of chemicals, not on a one-by-one basis, and it must ban all nonessential uses of PFAS.
It must also hold all industries accountable and reject calls to narrow the scope of regulations through language games and other tricks. And it must fund water treatment upgrades for water systems and household wells with legislation like the WATER Act.
Without urgent action, PFAS’s harm to public health will continue to balloon, and families will continue to pay the price.
Tell your representatives: Protect our families from PFAS and hold polluters accountable!