According to data obtained by The Guardian, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has identified more than 120,000 locations around the United States where people may be exposed to a class of toxic “forever chemicals” associated with various cancers and other health problems that is a frightening tally four times larger than previously reported. That number vastly exceeds a previous analysis that showed only 29,900 industrial sites known or suspected of making or using toxic chemicals.
The increase in the number of facilities makes it clear that virtually no part of America appears free from the potential risk of air and water contamination with the chemicals, known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS).
The EPA describes its list as “facilities in industries that may be handling PFAS”. Most of the facilities are described as “active”, several thousand are listed as “inactive” and many others show no indication of such status. PFAS are often referred to as “forever chemicals” due to their longevity in the environment, thus even sites that are no longer actively discharging pollutants can still be a problem, according to the EPA.
— John Oliver (@iamjohnoliver) October 4, 2021
People living near such facilities “are certain to be exposed, some at very high levels” to PFAS chemicals, said David Brown, a public health toxicologist and former director of environmental epidemiology at the Connecticut department of health. Colorado tops the EPA list with an estimated 21,400 facilities, followed by California’s 13,000 sites and Oklahoma with just under 12,000. The facilities on the list represent dozens of industrial sectors, including oil and gas work, mining, chemical manufacturing, plastics, waste management, and landfill operations. Airports, fire training facilities, and some military-related sites are also included.
You know the best way to prevent people from consuming PFAS?
— Delegate Eric Luedtke (@EricLuedtke) October 17, 2021
Brown said he suspects there are far more sites than even those on the EPA list, posing long-term health risks for unsuspecting people who live near them. “Once it’s in the environment it almost never breaks down,” Brown said of PFAS. “This is such a potent compound in terms of its toxicity and it tends to bioaccumulate … This is one of the compounds that persist forever.”
— EcoWatch (@EcoWatch) October 17, 2021
In July, a report by Physicians for Social Responsibility presented evidence that oil and gas companies have been using PFAS, or substances that can degrade into PFAS, in hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”), a technique used to extract natural gas or oil.
Major manufacturers have backed away from the PFOS and PFOA-related chemicals that research has shown to be hazardous, and other types of PFAS are not proven to be dangerous, according to the chemical industry organization. “PFAS are vital” to modern society, according to the ACC. But public health and environmental groups, along with some members of Congress, say the risks posed to people by industrial use of PFAS substances are substantial.
Forever might sound good but when you think about it, it's a really long time.
— Green Production Gde (@producegreen) October 12, 2021
The Guardian profiles just one California town impacted by the PFAs. Read their full story here.
John Oliver also devoted a segment from the October 3rd episode of “Last Week Tonight” to PFAs, which you can watch below.