Lawmakers Take Manufacturing Companies to Task Over Toxic PFAS Chemicals in Drinking Water
Tensions between lawmakers and several large manufacturing companies came to a head on Capitol Hill this week during a hearing on toxic fluorochemicals in U.S. drinking water.
Representatives from the 3M Company, the Chemours Company and DuPont appeared before the House Oversight and Reform Committee on Sept. 10 as Congress explores several bills to regulate dangerous "forever chemicals" called PFAS, which do not break down in the environment and have been linked to a number of diseases.
Democrats on the committee suggested the companies had long known about the health hazards of dangerous "forever chemicals" called PFAS in their products and should shoulder some of the responsibility for addressing their spread.
"You have played a part in this national emergency. You have sickened our first responders and members of the military, and I don't know how you sleep at night," said Rep. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz of Florida, The Hill reported.
California Rep. Harley Rouda, who chairs the Oversight and Reform Committee's Subcommittee on Environment, said the companies' misrepresentation of the science around PFAS "shakes the foundation of democratic capitalism" by "violating the trust of the American people," The Guardian reported.
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, PFAS are synthetic chemicals used since the 1940's in food packaging, non-stick pans, cosmetics, firefighting foam and water- and grease-repellent products. PFAS contamination is often found in water sources near industrial sites, military bases and airports in nearly every U.S. state.
In addition to persisting in the environment, they have been shown to accumulate in the human body, and PFAS exposure has been linked with infertility, cancer, thyroid disease, developmental problems in children, liver damage and a host of other health issues, according to the U.S. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.
"Exposure to PFAS at even the lowest concentrations has been shown to harm human health and puts people in communities with contaminated drinking water at risk," the Environmental Working Group found.
The company executives, defended by the committee's Republican members, downplayed the health risks of PFAS and corporate liability for cleanup and medical costs.
3M's Senior Vice President of Corporate Affairs Denise Rutherford testified that the company had voluntarily phased out use of certain types of PFAS in the 90's and that "there is still no cause and effect relationship for any adverse human affect" of PFAS at current levels, The Hill reported.
This contradicts a large body of scientific research and 3M's own records — revealed during a lawsuit in Minnesota — which show that the company has been aware of the toxicity of fluorochemicals and potential health risk since 1950, according to the Star Tribune.
Michigan Rep. Dan Kildee said the denials were "ridiculous," and that the companies knew of the health risks or they "wouldn't have taken them off the market in the first place."
Chief operating and engineering officer at DuPont, Daryl Roberts, said that his company supports regulation of two of the 5,000 types of PFAS but will only clean up the chemicals at its current locations. DuPont made and used one of these types of PFAS called PFOA in its non-stick cookware until 2015, when that part of the business was spun off into its own company, Chemours. Chemours has since taken DuPont to court over responsibility for addressing contamination, The Guardian reported.
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Jean-Marc Neveu and Olivier Civil never expected to find themselves battling against disposable mask pollution.
When they founded their recycling start-up Plaxtil in 2017, it was textile waste they set their sights on. The project developed a process that turned fabrics into a new recyclable material they describe as "ecological plastic."
Mounting Piles of Waste<p>It is not only the streets of Chatellerault where pandemic pollution is piling-up, but also the world's beaches and oceans. Once there, they can take up to 450 years to degrade and disappear.</p><p>Esther Röling, co-organizer of the annual Adventure Clean Up Challenge held on Hong Kong Island, has seen this waste firsthand. In October the sports challenge pitted teams against one another in a competition to remove trash from 13 hard-to-reach coastal areas around the city.</p><p>They find tons of both disposable and reusable masks, said Röling. "You wonder how it ended up there. Was it just thrown on the ground? Or was it in a garbage bag that broke open?"</p><p>Almost 10,000 kilometers away in Antibes on the sunny French Riviera, it's a similar picture. For the past few months, divers and clean-up volunteers working with an ocean clean-up non-profit called Operation Mer Propre have been collecting an increasing number of masks found on land and in the sea.</p><p>"Since the beginning of the lockdown when we started to count, we've reached 800, 900, [and now in total] 1000 masks," said co-founder Joko Peltier. </p><p>According to <a href="https://unctad.org/news/growing-plastic-pollution-wake-covid-19-how-trade-policy-can-help" target="_blank">UN estimates</a>, up to 75% of all coronavirus-related plastic could end up as waste in oceans and landfills.</p>
The Limits of Recycling<p>Yet not all are convinced the recycling of this waste is possible on a global scale. </p><p>"What those citizen groups are doing is really beneficial but once they collect it, it should just go to a landfill or an incinerator. They shouldn't necessarily expect it to get recycled," said Jonathan Krones, an industrial ecologist and visiting assistant professor of environmental studies at Boston College.</p><p>That's because mask recycling programs like Plaxtil are few and far between and most don't have the benefit of a readily adaptable production process. </p><p>Even in countries with solid recycling infrastructure, he says, the system is designed to separate out specific types of waste like bottles or cardboard.</p><p>"I imagine that it would be technically feasible to develop a separation process to filter out masks, but there simply aren't enough of them to make that economical," he said.</p><p>Collection is a big hurdle, he adds. Since each mask only weighs a fraction of a gram and they're scattered on roads or mixed with other trash, it is difficult and costly. </p><p>"You need a lot of raw material of the right quality to make investing in the recycling technology and the recycling system worthwhile," he said.<span></span><br></p>
Hemp, Sugar Cane and Sustainable Alternatives<p>Some projects are instead addressing the material used to make masks.</p><p>French company Geochanvre have created a mask made primarily from hemp, while in Australia, researchers at the Queensland University of Technology are experimenting with a disposable product made from agricultural waste. </p><p>Biodegradable options are exciting alternatives to reduce the fossil fuels needed for the creation of plastic-based masks, said Krones, but they don't absolve the wearer from the responsibility of what happens afterwards. </p><p>Bio-based masks often need their own composing solutions, he explains, because in landfill they can produce high amounts of the greenhouse gas methane when anaerobic bacteria feeds on the organic material. Methane is known to be significantly more potent than carbon dioxide.</p><p>"I think as long as we have in our mind that we want to have disposability, we're going to have to wrestle with a variety of different sorts of environmental tradeoffs," he said, adding that reusable, fabric masks are the best option available to most people.</p><p>Precimask is developing a clear face covering with an optional visor made from hard plastic, designed to be long-lasting.<br></p><p>Air enters either side of the cheeks through a technology normally found in pool filters and car exhaust systems, said company spokeswoman Juliette Chambet.</p><p>"We wanted to make ceramic-based filters that would be washable and cleanable, which would allow them to be reused as many times as desired without having to buy a new consumable or produce waste," she said. </p><p>Ultimately, encouraging mask wearers to think about the entire lifecycle of a mask is key, explains Neveu. </p><p>"We want people who put on the masks to realize that they are also responsible for the waste, he said. "It's not inevitable that this [pandemic] will become an environmental catastrophe.</p><p><em>Reposted with permission from </em><em><a href="https://www.dw.com/en/covid-19-recycling-pollution-trash-pandemic/a-55707817" target="_blank">Deutsche Welle</a>.</em><a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/r/entryeditor/2649032193#/" target="_self"></a></p>
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