PFAS denials leave polluters accountable

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The West Virginia Water Authority is spending millions of dollars on an advanced filtration system to prevent a hazardous “perishable chemical” from chemical company Chemours from contaminating the drinking water it distributes to customers in the Roanoke area.

Right now, it doesn’t appear the company will have to shell out a penny to clean up the Roanoke River and Spring Hollow Reservoir, from which the agency distributes drinking water. That lack of corporate responsibility applies to a chemical product called GenX, which according to a health advisory from the Environmental Protection Agency should be limited to 10 parts per trillion. That’s right, 10 parts per trillion. This is because laboratory tests on animals link its presence to certain cancers and high cholesterol.

Most major chemical companies, including Chemours, lobby politicians to downplay the public health risks of their products. These companies are pushing for weak or no regulation of per- and polyfluoroalkyl (PFAS) chemicals, such as Chemours’ GenX. These chemicals are used to waterproof clothing, protect carpets and furniture from stains, make non-stick cookware, make fire-fighting foam, and even line food packaging. The waste from their production breaks down so slowly that it accumulates in the blood of humans and other animals and has been linked to various types of cancer and a host of other health problems.

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However, because these problems take years to develop, companies like Chemours claim that their products are not the source of harm to health.

The EPA and US Food and Drug Administration allow products on the market before adequate safety testing is conducted. They employ a “You can sell it until someone proves it harms people” attitude. There are thousands of individual PFAS types. This makes enforcing security standards time-consuming and expensive, if not impossible. The US approach contrasts with the European chemical approval model, which generally restricts sales until companies can demonstrate that their products pose no risk to public health.

To understand what is at stake in what has become a global PFAS public health crisis that will cost taxpayers billions of dollars to resolve, consider that 95% of Americans have measurable levels of PFAS in their have blood In Europe, eggs from hens reared near a 3M facility have been assessed as inedible due to PFAS. Military bases using PFAS-based firefighting foam polluted surrounding rivers and streams, leaving PFAS inedible in fish and wildlife.

In the Roanoke situation, Chemours followed the US script of corporate denial and diversion. When the presence of what appeared to be GenX in Roanoke’s water supply surfaced, the company denied knowledge. It even asked The Daily Progress to replace the GenX product name in an editorial. The company insisted that we should only use the common chemical name for the substance. A company spokeswoman told us that Chemours has no manufacturing facilities in Virginia, so there’s no way it could be GenX in the Roanoke area waters.

She was half right and not entirely accommodating. Chemours has no manufacturing facilities in Virginia. GenX manufacturing facility is located in Parkersburg, west Virginia. Parkersburg is also the site of an infamous PFAS pollution case involving DuPont, which was settled for $600 million and inspired the Mark Ruffalo film Dark Waters.

According to Roanoke Times journalist Laurence Hammack, since 2014, Chemours has shipped machines from its GenX plant in West Virginia to an industrial cleaning company called ProChem in Elliston, Virginia. The Virginia Department of Environmental Quality found that the effluent that ProChem discharged into the sewage system contained GenX levels of 1.3 million parts per trillion — 130,000 times the EPA health recommendation. The river and reservoir diluted pollution, but it remained more than six times higher than government recommendations.

The good news is that new filters are now bringing GenX to safe levels in drinking water in the Spring Hollow reservoir.

The bad news is that these filters may cost Chemours nothing.