How U.S. Government Conceals Truth About 'Forever Chemicals' and How You Can Help Avoid Exposure
By Michael Green
A handful of multibillion-dollar chemical companies have waged war on our bodies and our environment for nearly 70 years without our knowledge or consent. Although the federal government — tasked with protecting the public and upholding the law — became aware of this chemical assault 20 years ago, it chose to conceal the truth, downplay the threat, and expand the use of a class of chemicals known to endanger the health of present and future generations.
Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS): Toxic, Persistent, Inescapable
PFAS are a class of nearly 5,000 synthetic chemicals that make products water- and grease-resistant. They are in non-stick cookware, water-repellent clothing, stain-resistant carpets, lubricants, firefighting foams, paints, cosmetics and paper plates our kids eat off at schools. Humans are exposed to PFAS through contaminated food, air, dust, rain, soil and drinking water.
Termed "forever chemicals," PFAS can take thousands of years to break down in the environment and can remain in our bodies for decades. PFAS are now in the blood of 99 percent of Americans and have contaminated the drinking water of as many as 110 million Americans — particularly those living near chemical manufacturing facilities, airports and military bases. Even the smallest exposure to PFAS can cause a variety of cancers, thyroid disease, hormone disruption, decreased fertility and other serious health issues.
But there are signs of hope. Health-ravaged communities are fighting back against those that poisoned them — and winning. Schools and businesses are increasingly seeking out foodware, carpets, couches and other items that are PFAS-free. The Home Depot, the world's largest home improvement retailer, just announced that it will phase out the sale of all carpets and rugs containing PFAS chemicals. More and more states are taking matters into their own hands, leading a national movement to combat exposure to PFAS.
"Dark Waters," an upcoming film starring Mark Ruffalo, Anne Hathaway and Tim Robbins, will tell the story of corporate lawyer Robert Bilott, who helped expose one of the most appalling environmental crimes in our nation's history. And Congress is finally moving to action on behalf of the people they serve, not the corporations making them sick. Action to protect public health is being taken abroad as well, with Denmark recently becoming the first country to ban PFAS in food packaging. But much more must be done.
In the Chemical Industry’s Secret War, Communities Are Fighting Back
In 1947, manufacturing company 3M developed perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) — a member of the PFAS family. DuPont purchased PFOA in 1951 to make Teflon, which quickly made its way into the kitchens of millions of American households.
In 1999, a West Virginia farmer whose cattle were suffering unexplained illnesses sued DuPont. The company was forced to release internal documents showing its PFOA-producing factory had contaminated the local water supply, and that it had hidden evidence showing that the chemical was hazardous to human health. Tens of thousands of local residents paid the price, including DuPont's own workers, suffering elevated risks of cancer and greater incidences of low infant birth weights.
This landmark legal victory by one small farmer against a multibillion-dollar chemical company sparked a nationwide uprising of PFAS-poisoned communities filing and winning a series of class-action lawsuits against DuPont, 3M and Chemours (a spinoff of DuPont), resulting in billions of dollars in legal settlements. These courageous communities forced the release of damaging internal documents showing these companies had known since the 1970s their two most widely used PFAS — PFOA in Teflon and perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS) in Scotchgard — were linked to cancer, thyroid disease and other adverse health impacts.
In response, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) rightfully determined PFOS and PFOA were too great a risk to human health, and DuPont and 3M voluntarily phased them out. But instead of getting out of the PFAS business, these companies simply replaced them with slightly altered substitutions, renamed and rebranded as safe, yet equally persistent and no less hazardous.
For example, Chemours replaced PFOA with a new PFAS called GenX. Now, eastern North Carolina is reeling from GenX contamination in the Cape Fear River as a result of discharge from the manufacturing process that allows for the creation of Teflon and firefighting foam. Consequently, this recurring chemical onslaught continues unabated, increasing the number of unaware and unprepared communities being decimated by companies that will lie and kill for money.
It’s All About Class: The Key to Reducing Human Exposure to PFAS
This game of chemical "whack-a-mole" must end. Thanks to weak laws and undue chemical industry influence, PFAS remain in an endless number of products and industrial applications, continue to spread across the globe, and pollute our drinking water, food, bodies and environment.
All PFAS are similar in structure and use and contain properties known to be toxic. To even begin to address this crisis, PFAS must be properly regulated as a "class" of chemicals and included on the EPA's Toxics Release Inventory (TRI), just as what was done to Monsanto's cancer-causing class of polychlorinated biphenyls chemicals.
Once on the TRI, one of the nation's premier right-to-know initiatives, chemical manufacturers will have to report where, when and the amount of PFAS they are releasing into our air, water and soil annually. This would better inform unknowingly exposed communities, incentivize companies to reduce PFAS pollution, prioritize the elimination of the most hazardous PFAS and more effectively hold polluters accountable.
EPA, Trump and DoD: Greed, Corruption and Collusion
Yet, Trump's EPA and Department of Defense (DoD) remain dependable PFAS defenders. The EPA has yet to set a safe, enforceable drinking water standard for PFAS, has colluded with the chemical industry to keep health risks secret, and has approved the use of more than 600 new PFAS chemicals in the last 10 years.
The DoD has long been aware that PFAS in firefighting foam endangers the health of soldiers, their families and surrounding communities. But again, the life of U.S. soldiers are not as valued as the chemicals that kill them.
As of August 2017, there are more than 400 known or suspected military sites contaminated with PFAS. A recent report found PFAS water contamination at 130 military bases across the country — nearly two-thirds had more than 100 times levels considered safe. Nonetheless, the DoD supports the continued use of PFAS despite the availability of safer alternatives, opposes spending the $2 billion in PFAS cleanup costs needed on and around military bases and has pressured the EPA to weaken cleanup standards.
The Trump administration recently attempted to suppress a major environmental health study that showed exposure limits for PFAS should be 7 to 10 times lower than current EPA safety standards. Last February, Trump's EPA, a wholly owned subsidiary of the chemical industry, released its long-awaited "PFAS Action Plan" that actually makes it easier for the continued, secret and unregulated use of chemicals that threaten our future survival without fear of repercussion.
Congress Steps Up, Trump Threatens Veto
After decades of inaction, Congress has recently introduced more than 20 PFAS-related bills, as well as dozens of amendments to the House and Senate versions of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that would reduce PFAS pollution and help identify the extent of the crisis we face — including increasing the cleanup of PFAS waste using the Superfund program and requiring the EPA to set a science-based standard for PFAS in drinking water.
Notably, President Trump has threatened to veto the NDAA if it contains current amendments that would protect soldiers — and surrounding communities — impacted by the U.S. military's use of PFAS-laden firefighting foam. Congress has until early October to submit an agreed-upon, merged bill to the president.
A Clash on Class: We Must Get This Right
Despite Trump's threatened veto, my organization, the Center for Environmental Health, applauds these historic and long overdue congressional actions. However, there are significantly different approaches being taken on the most important action of all.
The Senate has proposed an amendment to the NDAA that only adds 200 of the nearly 5,000 PFAS currently in existence to the Toxics Release Inventory. Such a limited scope will only open the door for companies like DuPont, Chemours and 3M to continue to perpetually spawn new PFAS chemicals, allowing this cycle of corporate profit at the expense of human life to continue, perhaps forever.
The better approach is a bipartisan, stand-alone bill proposed by Rep. Antonio Delgado of New York that includes all 5,000 PFAS on the TRI. Twenty-two state attorneys general support this approach, as they've seen firsthand the futility of eliminating one PFAS chemical, only to see another toxic copycat take its place.
Congress should reject the Senate's feckless TRI amendment, support Representative Delgado's bill, and support an NDAA bill only if it includes the PFAS amendments.
We face one of the most serious environmental health crises in our history. All communities deserve the right to know if toxic chemicals are being released into their air, water, food and soil. It's time to embrace scientific reality as our guide to overcoming this challenge and start prioritizing peoples' health over corporate.
What You Can Do to Help Avoid PFAS Exposure
Find out if your tap water has been properly tested. If you are concerned, consider installing an in-home filter on your tap. Avoid "nonstick" or "waterproof" products and disposable foodware and carryout items — see the Center for Environmental Health's database for safer options. Avoid microwave popcorn — and make your own instead. Don't use beauty products with ingredients containing the term "fluoro."
Tell your representatives to include PFAS as a class on the TRI today.
Michael Green is the chief executive officer of the Center for Environmental Health, which he founded in 1996. The Center works with parents, communities, businesses, workers, and government to protect children and families from toxic chemicals in homes, workplaces, schools and neighborhoods.
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By Brian Bienkowski
Fish exposed to endocrine-disrupting compounds pass on health problems to future generations, including deformities, reduced survival, and reproductive problems, according to a new study.
Low Levels Lead to Generational Impacts<p>Researchers exposed inland silverside fish to bifenthrin, levonorgestrel, ethinylestradiol, and trenbolone to levels currently found in waterways.</p><p>"Our concentrations were actually on the low end" of what is found in the wild, DeCourten said, adding that it was low amounts of chemicals in parts per trillion.</p><p>Bifenthrin is a pesticide; levonorgestrel and ethinylestradiol are synthetic hormones used in birth controls; and trenbolone is a synthetic steroid often given to cattle to bulk them up.</p><p>Such endocrine-disruptors have already been linked to a variety of health problems in directly exposed fish including altered growth, reduced survival, lowered egg production, skewed sex ratios, and negative impacts to immune systems. But what remains less clear is how the exposure may impact future generations.</p><p>For their study, DeCourten and colleagues started the exposure when the fish were embryos and continued it for 21 days.</p><p>They then tracked effects on the exposed fish, and the next two generations.</p>
Inherited Problems<p>DeCourten said the altered DNA methylation is one of the plausible ways that future generations would experience health impacts from previous generations' exposure. Hormone-disrupting compounds have been shown to impact DNA methylation, which is an important marker of how an organism will develop.</p><p>"Methyl groups are added to specific sites on the genome, [the exposure] is not changing the genome itself, but rather how the genome is expressed," she said. "And that can be inherited throughout generations."</p><p>In addition, Brander said there are essentially different "tags" that exist on DNA molecules, which tell genes how to turn on and off. She said the exposure to different compounds may be "influencing which methyl tags get taken on or off as you proceed through generations."</p><p>The researchers said the study should prompt future toxics testing to consider impacts on future generations.</p><p>"The results … throw a wrench in the current approach to regulating chemicals, where it's often short-term testing looking at simple things like growth, survival, and maybe gene expression," Brander said.</p><p>"These findings are telling us we really at least need to consider" the next two generations, she added.</p>
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By Laura Beil
Consumers have long turned to vitamins and herbs to try to protect themselves from disease. This pandemic is no different — especially with headlines that scream "This supplement could save you from coronavirus."
Vitamin D<p><strong>What it is: </strong>Called "the sunshine vitamin" because the body makes it naturally in the presence of ultraviolet light, <a href="https://www.sciencenews.org/article/vitamin-d-supplements-lose-luster" target="_blank">Vitamin D is one of the most heavily studied</a> supplements (<em>SN: 1/27/19</em>). <a href="https://health.gov/our-work/food-nutrition/2015-2020-dietary-guidelines/guidelines/appendix-12/" target="_blank">Certain foods</a>, including fish and fortified milk products, are also high in the vitamin.</p><p><strong>Why it might help: </strong>Vitamin D is a hormone building block that helps strengthen the immune system.</p><p><strong>How it works for other infections:</strong> In 2017, the <em>British Medical Journal</em> published a meta-analysis that suggested a daily vitamin D supplement <a href="https://www.bmj.com/content/356/bmj.i6583" target="_blank">might help prevent respiratory infections</a>, particularly in people who are deficient in the vitamin.</p><p>But one key word here is <em>deficient. </em>That risk is highest during dark winters at high latitudes and among people with more color in their skin (melanin, a pigment that's higher in darker skin, inhibits the production of vitamin D).</p><p>"If you have enough vitamin D in your body, the evidence doesn't stack up to say that giving you more will make a real difference," says Susan Lanham-New, head of the Nutritional Sciences Department at the University of Surrey in England.</p><p>And taking too much can create new health problems, stressing certain internal organs and leading to a dangerously high calcium buildup in the blood. The recommended daily allowance for adults is 600 to 800 International Units per day, and the upper limit is considered to be 4,000 IUs per day.</p><p><strong>What we know about Vitamin D and COVID-19:</strong> Few studies have looked directly at whether vitamin D makes a difference in COVID.</p>
Zinc<p><strong>What it is: </strong>Zinc, a mineral found in cells all over the body, is found naturally in certain meats, beans and oysters.</p><p><strong>Why it might help: </strong>It plays several supportive roles in the immune system, which is why zinc lozenges are always hot sellers in cold and flu season. Zinc also helps with cell division and growth.</p><p><strong>How it works for other infections: </strong><a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6457799/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Studies of using zinc for colds</a> — which are frequently caused by coronaviruses — suggest that using a supplement right after symptoms start might make them go away quicker. That said, a clinical trial from researchers in Finland and the United Kingdom, published in January in <em>BMJ Open</em> <a href="https://bmjopen.bmj.com/content/10/1/e031662" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">did not find any value for zinc lozenges</a> for the treatment of colds. Some researchers have theorized that inconsistencies in data for colds may be explained by varying amounts of zinc released in different lozenges.</p><p><strong>What we know about zinc and COVID-19:</strong> The mineral is promising enough that it was added to some early studies of hydroxychloroquine, a drug tested early in the pandemic. (Studies have since shown that <a href="https://www.sciencenews.org/article/covid-19-coronavirus-hydroxychloroquine-no-evidence-treatment" target="_blank">hydroxychloroquine can't prevent or treat COVID-19</a> (<em>SN: 8/2/20</em>).)</p>
Vitamin C<p><strong>What it is: </strong>Also called L-ascorbic acid, vitamin C has a long list of roles in the body. It's found naturally in fruits and vegetables, especially citrus, peppers and tomatoes.</p><p><strong>Why it might help:</strong> It's a potent antioxidant that's important for a healthy immune system and preventing inflammation.</p><p><strong>How it works for other infections: </strong>Thomas cautions that the data on vitamin C are often contradictory. One review from Chinese researchers, published in February in the <em>Journal of Medical Virolog</em>y, looked at <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1002/jmv.25707" target="_blank">what is already known about vitamin C</a> and other supplements that might have a role in COVID-19 treatment. Among other encouraging signs, human studies find a lower incidence of pneumonia among people taking vitamin C, "suggesting that vitamin C might prevent the susceptibility to lower respiratory tract infections under certain conditions."</p><p>But for preventing colds, a 2013 Cochrane review of 29 studies <a href="https://www.cochranelibrary.com/cdsr/doi/10.1002/14651858.CD000980.pub4/full" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">didn't support the idea</a> that vitamin C supplements could help in the general population. However, the authors wrote, given that vitamin C is cheap and safe, "it may be worthwhile for common cold patients to test on an individual basis whether therapeutic vitamin C is beneficial."</p><p><strong>What we know about Vitamin C and COVID-19: </strong>About a dozen studies are under way or planned to examine whether vitamin C added to coronavirus treatment helps with symptoms or survival, including Thomas' study at the Cleveland Clinic.</p><p>In a review published online in July in <em>Nutrition</em>, researchers from KU Leuven in Belgium concluded that the <a href="https://www.cochranelibrary.com/cdsr/doi/10.1002/14651858.CD000980.pub4/full" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">vitamin may help prevent infection</a> and tamp down the dangerous inflammatory reaction that can cause severe symptoms, based on what is known about how the nutrient works in the body.</p><p>Melissa Badowski, a pharmacist who specializes in viral infections at the University of Illinois at Chicago College of Pharmacy and colleague Sarah Michienzi published an extensive look at all supplements that might be useful in the coronavirus epidemic. There's <a href="https://www.drugsincontext.com/can-vitamins-and-or-supplements-provide-hope-against-coronavirus/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">still not enough evidence to know whether they are helpful</a>, the pair concluded in July in <em>Drugs in Context</em>. "It's not really clear if it's going to benefit patients," Badowski says.</p><p>And while supplements are generally safe, she adds that nothing is risk free. The best way to avoid infection, she says, is still to follow the advice of epidemiologists and public health experts: "Wash your hands, wear a mask, stay six feet apart."</p>
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By Elliot Douglas
In early October, Britain's Prince William teamed up with conservationist David Attenborough to launch the Earthshot Prize, a new award for environmentalist innovation. The Earthshot brands itself the "most prestigious global environment prize in history."
The world-famous wildlife broadcaster and his royal sidekick appear to have played an active role in the prize's inception, and media coverage has focused largely on them as the faces of the campaign.
“Rather than a Moonshot 🌕, we need Earthshots 🌍 for this decade.” Watch Prince William’s @Tedtalks talk in full:… https://t.co/m5NCj6TQzH— The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge (@The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge)1602408749.0
But the pair are only the frontmen of a much larger movement which has been in development for several years. In addition to a panel of experts who will decide on the winners, the prize's formation took advice from the World Wildlife Fund, Greenpeace and the Jack Ma Foundation.
With more and more global attention on the climate crisis, celebrity endorsement of environmental causes has become more common. But why do environmental causes recruit famous faces for their campaigns? And what difference can it make?
'Count Me In'
"We need celebrities to reach those people who we cannot reach ourselves," says Sarah Marchildon from the United Nations Climate Change secretariat (UNFCCC) in Bonn, Germany.
Marchildon is a proponent of the use of celebrities to raise awareness of environmental causes. In addition to promoting a selection of climate ambassadors who represent the UN on sustainability issues, Marchildon's team has produced videos with well-known narrators from the entertainment world: among them, Morgan Freeman and Mark Ruffalo.
"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," Marchildon explains.
"Sometimes they reach out to us themselves, as David Attenborough did recently. And then they can promote the videos on their own social channels which reach more people than we do — for example, if they have 20 million followers and we have 750,000."
Environmental groups focused on their own domestic markets are also taking this approach. One Germany-based organization that uses celebrities in campaigns is the German Zero NGO. Set up in 2019, it advocates for a climate-neutral Germany by 2035.
German Zero produced a video in March 2020 introducing the campaign with "66 celebrities" that supported the campaign, among them Deutschland 83 actor Jonas Nay and former professional footballer Andre Schürrle. They solicit support as well as financial contributions from viewers.
"Count me in," they say, pointing toward the camera. "You too?"
"We are incredibly grateful for the VIPs in our videos," says German Zero spokeswoman Eva-Maria McCormack.
Assessing Success Is Complex
But quantifying the effectiveness of celebrity endorsement of campaigns is not a straightforward process.
"In order to measure effectiveness, first of all you need to define what is meant by success," says Alegria Olmedo, a researcher at the Zoology Department at the University of Oxford.
Olmedo is the author of a study looking at a range of campaigns concerning pangolin consumption, fronted by local and Western celebrities, in Vietnam and China. But she says her biggest stumbling block was knowing how to measure a campaign's success.
"You need a clear theory of change," explains Olmedo. "Have the celebrities actually helped in achieving the campaign's goals? And how do you quantify these goals? Maybe it is increased donations or higher engagement with a cause."
A popular campaign in China in recent years saw famous chefs Zhao Danian and Shu Yi pledge to abstain from cooking endangered wildlife. While the pledge achieved widespread recognition, both Olmedo and Marchildon say it's difficult to know whether it made any difference to people's actions.
"In life we see a thousand messages every day, and it is very hard to pinpoint whether one campaign has actually made a difference in people's behavior," she explains.
Awareness Is Not Enough
Many campaigns that feature celebrities focus on raising awareness rather than on concrete action — which, for researcher Olmedo, raises a further problem in identifying effectiveness.
"Reach should never be a success outcome," she says. "Many campaigns say they reached a certain number of people on social media. But there has been a lot of research that shows that simply giving people information does not mean they are actually going to remember it or act upon it."
But anecdotal evidence from campaigns may suggest reach can make an active difference.
"Our VIP video is by far the most watched on our social media channels," McCormack from German Zero says. "People respond to it very directly. A lot of volunteers of all ages heard about us through that video."
However, some marketing studies have shown that celebrity endorsement of a cause or product can distract from the issue itself, as people only remember the person, not the content of what they were saying.
Choosing the Right Celebrity
Celebrity choice is also very important. Campaigns that use famous faces are often aiming to appeal to members of the public who do not necessarily follow green issues.
For certain campaigns with clear target audiences, choosing a climate scientist or well-known environmentalist rather than a celebrity could be more appealing — Attenborough is a classic example. For others, images and videos involving cute animals may be more likely to get a message heard than attaching a famous face.
"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," says Marchildon from the UN. "You need figures with credibility."
McCormack cites the example of Katharine Hayhoe, an environmental scientist who is also an evangelical Christian. In the southern United States, Hayhoe has become a celebrity in her own right, appealing to an audience that might not normally be interested in the messages of climate scientists.
But as soon as you get a celebrity involved, campaigns also put themselves at risk of the whims of that celebrity. Prince William and younger members of the royal family have come under fire in recent years for alleged hypocrisy for their backing of environmental campaigns while simultaneously using private jets to fly around the world.
But Does It Really Work?
While environmental campaigns hope that endorsement from well-known figures can boost a campaign, there is little research to back this up.
"The biggest finding [from my study] was that we were unable to produce any evidence that shows that celebrity endorsement of environmental causes makes any difference," says Olmedo.
This will come as a blow to many campaigns that have invested time and effort into relationships with celebrity ambassadors. But for many, the personal message that many celebrities offer in videos like that produced by German Zero and campaigns like the Earthshot Prize are what counts.
The research may not prove this conclusively — but if the public believes a person they respect deeply personally cares about an important issue, they are perhaps more likely to care too.
"I personally believe in the power this can have," says Marchildon. "And if having a celebrity involved can get a single 16-year-old future leader thinking about environmentalist issues — that is enough."
Reposted with permission from DW.
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