They say that what you don't know won't hurt you.
Or will it? In the case of the family of chemicals known collectively as PFAS, it is becoming increasingly clear that the decades of relative—or studied—ignorance about the effects of these chemicals on human health are now taking their toll.
PFAS—per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances—are used to make fluoropolymer coatings and products that resist heat, oil, stains, grease and water. They are extremely important in the sealing industry, playing a vital role in products such as seals and gaskets.
PFAS enter the environment through emissions from plants that make or use the substances, or through the use of PFAS-containing products, such as fire-extinguishing foams, textile impregnation agents, lubricants or PFAS-containing products in the waste stream. Some are harmful, while others are not.
However, associations have been found between exposure to these chemicals and a wide range of health effects. To date, these include altered immune and thyroid function, liver disease, high cholesterol, increased risk of some cancers—including prostate, kidney, and testicular cancers—insulin dysregulation, kidney disease, reduced fertility and reduced fetal growth.
And that may not be all. There still are many types of PFAS about which scientists know little, if anything, according to the RIVM, the National Institute for Public Health and the Environment in the Netherlands—the country I live in.
That same institute on July 6 published the results of a study into the risk of exposure to PFAS through food and drinking water in the Netherlands, showing that the Dutch population ingests more than three times the level stated in the health-based guidance for PFAS through dietary sources. According to the report, fish is the major food source, next to coffee, tea, cereal products, milk products, meat, eggs, and fruits and vegetables.
I didn't know that.
What I did know was that 50 kilometers from where I live, is a flourishing Chemours plant, dedicated to the production of fluoropolymers, a group of polymers within the class of PFAS. The plant is Chemours' largest production complex in Europe, located along the Merwede River in the Rhine-Maas delta, one of the most densely populated and industrialized areas in the world.
The first factory built on the complex, which was—and is—surrounded by a number of different towns and communities, has been there since the early 1960s, built by DuPont to manufacture an acrylic fabric called Orlon. More and more plants were added over the years and, at the end of the 1960s, DuPont started using perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) to produce Teflon. The company had a wastewater discharge permit allowing it to discharge PFOA directly into the Merwede River. Yet, as far back as the 1960s and 1970s, researchers determined that it was toxic to fish and rats, that it can bind to proteins in the human body, and that it accumulates in the blood. The company discontinued the use of PFOA in 2012, switching instead to a substance called GenX, another type of PFAS. But it continued—and still continues—to discharge GenX directly into the river.
Meanwhile, the people living in the areas around the DuPont—later Chemours—plant were starting to question the impact of decades of exposure to the plant's emissions via air and water. More and more reports on the toxicity and danger of PFAS chemicals continued to appear as time went on. In fact, in 2017, people within a radius of 1 kilometer of the plant were warned not to eat fruit or vegetable from their gardens. Blood tests carried out by the RIVM that same year showed that PFAS levels in the blood of people living in the vicinity of the plant were elevated far beyond the health-based limit value for PFOA.
What neither the local population nor the authorities knew, and were apparently carefully not told, was that Chemours had known for 30 years that the plant has been polluting the groundwater in the Dordrecht area with large amounts of PFAS. That fact that emerged during a documentary titled "De PFAS-doofpot" - The PFAS cover up - that aired June 15 on Dutch television.
A 1984 report from a corporate meeting in which the company debated its standpoint on its C8/PFOA operations and their impact on the environment—not just in Dordrecht but also in the U.S.—states: "There was consensus reached that the issue which will decide further action is one of corporate image, and corporate liability. Liability was further defined as the incremental liability from this point on if we do nothing, as we are already liable for the past 32 years of operation."
The makers of the documentary also obtained documents showing that PFAS concentrations measured by DuPont in the groundwater in Dordrecht in 1993 already were 75 times higher than their own standard. The PFAS coordinator subsequently appointed by the company, apparently discovered that broken pipes had leaked large quantities of PFAS into the environment, creating what amounted to an "involuntary landfill" under the factory.
There also was concern about the Dordrecht landfills the company was using for PFAS waste. The coordinator noted that further samples should be taken at these sites, but that this entailed "political problems"; if PFAS were found it would "only cost us more." He emphasised that "the ethical thing to do" would be to take samples at the landfill sites, but this would require "firm backing by management".
The June 15 documentary also revealed the results of the latest measurements, carried out on behalf of the makers of the documentary. These showed that the water in the ditches, ponds and open water swimming areas in a radius of at least 15 kilometers around the Chemours factory are severely polluted by PFAS, at levels that far exceed what the RIVM considers to be safe.
For example, in the neighbouring towns of Sliedrecht and Papendrecht, the PFOA concentrations measured 1 kilometer from the factory were 13,000 times the safe exposure limits set by the RIVM. The GenX concentrations were 58 times what is thought to be safe.
In that same area, a new housing development is currently being built.
Eight kilometers away is a recreational lake where people of all ages come to swim in summer. The lake also is polluted with such high levels of PFAS that experts say swimming in it should be banned.
The polluted water in the ditches, used to irrigate the fields, contaminates the grass eaten by cows grazing in those fields. PFAS is in the milk they give.
And, thanks to the RIVM publication on July 6, it has now been confirmed that it is not just there, but that excessively high PFAS values are everywhere. Like it or not, it's our reality.
It is not all the fault of the Chemours plant, obviously. But what sticks in the craw is the cavalier attitude of Chemours—and the cover up. Any remaining trust in the company, the authorities and the industry has evaporated. And while the industry argues that some PFAS are harmless, and that a more nuanced approach to PFAS regulation is needed than the universal ban called for by the European Union, for many the time for nuance has passed.
One final note: Chemours was asked a number of questions by the documentary makers about the issues raised in their report, but responded to none, choosing instead to accuse them of muckraking journalism. It said:
"We have run this plant in a responsible manner and according to the highest standards and we will continue to do so, just as we will continue to do good work in the communities in which we operate.
As a cynic would say, it's the kind of slick answer one might expect from a Teflon company.