- The chemical class known as PFAS became popular in the US around the 1940s when manufacturing companies realised they resist heat, grease, stains, and water.
- Today, PFAS are considered toxic and have been linked to cancer, liver damage, thyroid disease, and developmental issues.
- At a congressional hearing on July 24, a former scientist at DuPont Industries – a manufacturing company that dumped PFAS into the environment for decades, starting in the 1950s – said the chemicals can be found in almost every American’s blood.
- In his written statement, he also called for PFAS to be banned.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more.
Glenn Evers worked as a chemical engineer for DuPont Industries for 22 years, designing coatings for paper food packaging. While there, he discovered that Zonyl RP – a chemical found in popcorn bags, fast food packaging, and paper plates – was entering people’s food at three times the rate that the company had reported to the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
In 2005, Evers revealed his claims in a deposition as part of a class-action lawsuit against DuPont. His findings were confirmed by internal documents, but, in a statement to Business Insider, DuPont said the deposition “expressed a wide range of personal opinions that were inaccurate.”
Nearly 15 years later, the back-and-forth battle has made its way to Congress.
On July 24, Evers testified at a congressional hearing that DuPont had covered up its knowledge of the health risks related to PFAS. In his written statement, he also called for the class of chemicals (of which there are nearly 5,000 variants) to be banned.
“It doesn’t go away. This is a man-made chemical,” said Evers. “We just pass the baton to our generations of kids.”
PFAS became popular in the US around the 1940s, when manufacturing companies realised they resist heat, grease, stains, and water. Since then, scientists have discovered that PFAS can linger in water and air for thousands of years, landing them the nickname “forever chemicals.” Consuming or inhaling them means they could stay in the body for life.
Today, they are found in the bloodstreams of 99% of Americans. “These chemicals stay in your blood and don’t leave,” Evers said.
Because the chemicals last forever, Evers said, even “if you were to incinerate and cremate me, I would technically be a fluorochemical and hazardous source.”
US manufacturing companies dumped PFAS into the environment, leaving a toxic legacy
At the hearing on July 24, Evers said he was once so loyal to DuPont, he would have tattooed the company’s name on his body.
That all changed when he discovered the hazards of PFOA, a type of PFAS that also goes by the name C8. A more common nickname is the “Teflon chemical,” since the toxin was used to coat Teflon pans (DuPont eliminated the chemical from its US manufacturing in 2015).
In the 1950s, DuPont began to ramp up production of Teflon, a process that reportedly involved dumping PFOA into nearby rivers and pits of soil. A 2013 lawsuit alleged that the company was concerned about PFOA’s toxicity as early as 1954, though DuPont continued releasing the chemical into the environment for decades after that.
By the 1970s, DuPont had learned that PFOA was entering the bloodstream of its employees, according to internal documents released in court. A decade later, the company had evidence that the chemical was causing birth defects in the children of plant workers and seeping into the local water supply in Ohio and West Virginia.
In 2018, an Ohio firefighter sued DuPont on behalf of “everyone in the United States who has a detectable level of PFAS chemicals in their blood.” The company is also being sued by the states of New Jersey, Ohio, New Hampshire, and Vermont.
But DuPont isn’t the only company involved in PFAS contamination lawsuits. For decades, the footwear manufacturer Wolverine Worldwide has also been sued for dumping PFAS into the environment in Michigan.
Starting in the 1970s, PFAS were also used as firefighting foam for military training exercises and emergency responses.
In July 2019, the watchdog Environmental Working Group determined there were PFAS at more than 700 sites across 49 states in the US. Many of these sites included public water systems, military bases, and industrial plants.
PFAS have become a ‘national emergency’
Prior to Evers’ testimony on July 24, the chairman of the House environmental subcommittee, Harley Rouda, called PFAS contamination a “national emergency.”
“Let’s not beat around the bush here – the chemicals are toxic,” Rouda said. “Americans have basically been drinking Teflon and Scotchgard for decades and, the worst part is, they didn’t even know it.”
DuPont, which has since split from its holding company and re-branded itself as “new DuPont,” told Business Insider in a statement that it is “working closely with Congress and regulators” to enforce its “core values of safety, health, and environmental stewardship.”
“As new DuPont, we have limited information on the historical events discussed at the hearing,” the company said.
Though many PFAS have been phased out of the manufacturing industry, they still are found in food, drinking water, and consumer goods such as carpets, leather, and textiles.
Thus far, the EPA has established a health advisory for two types of PFAS that it considers most concerning: PFOA and PFOS. Their advisory is not a legal regulation, but serves as a warning to state agencies and public health officials about PFAS levels that could threaten human safety.
Many environmentalists still consider the EPA’s safety threshold to be too high.
When it comes to PFAS, Evers told Congress “there is not a single bacteria, mould, or virus, anything that will ever break this molecule down.”
“You can’t kill this beast,” he said. “You can only control it.”