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Environment

Baltimore files lawsuit against manufacturers for ‘forever chemicals’; nonprofit’s study detects array of PFAS in Maryland waterways

The city of Baltimore has joined dozens of other municipalities suing manufacturers for their use of “forever chemicals.”

The chemicals, called perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, have been used since the 1940s to manufacture a wide range of products, from carpeting to firefighting foam, because they are resistant to heat, water, grease and oil.

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But PFAS do not easily degrade in the environment, meaning the chemicals have accumulated over time. Also, PFAS can accumulate in the bodies of humans and animals, and some types can cause serious health problems, including reproductive defects, developmental problems in children and certain types of cancer. As a result, industries have phased out the chemicals, though some remain in use.

Baltimore filed its suit in U.S. District Court against more than 20 manufacturers that used PFAS, including 3M, DuPont and Chemours, according to a news release Friday from Democratic Mayor Brandon Scott. The suit, which mimics others filed across the country — from Prince George’s County to Philadelphia and San Diego — seeks to hold the manufacturers “accountable for knowingly allowing the City’s waterways and water systems to come into contact with these substances,” according to Scott’s release.

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Similarly, in 2018, the city joined several others in the U.S. in filing a lawsuit against fossil fuel companies, alleging they misled the public about the impacts of climate change. Since then, the parties have battled over whether the claims should be heard in federal or state court.

In 2021, the city’s drinking water plants detected two types of forever chemicals, PFOA and PFOS. Drinking water in the Ashburton Plant had a combined level of 4.93 parts per trillion, just above the smallest amount that can be accurately measured — 4 parts per trillion, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Earlier this year, the EPA said that PFAS can pose health risks even at minute levels — 0.004 parts per trillion for PFOA and 0.02 parts per trillion for PFOS.

The American Chemistry Council sued the EPA in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, saying the advisory is not based in science and that such low levels of PFAS cannot even be detected, according to a story by E&E News, an environment-focused unit of Politico.

In response to a separate PFAS suit filed by the state of North Carolina against it, 3M said it “acted responsibly in connection with products containing PFAS — including AFFF (aqueous film-forming foam) — and will vigorously defend its record of environmental stewardship,” according to a Bloomberg Law report.

The Maryland Department of the Environment began testing the state’s drinking water for PFAS in 2020, and found quantifiable levels of the pollutant in 75% of samples at water treatment plants. Some 21% of samples had levels 10 parts per trillion or greater. Several drinking water wells in Carroll County scored the highest and were taken offline.

In 2022, the Maryland General Assembly passed legislation banning the use of PFAS in the manufacturing of items like rugs and paper products. Previously, state law only restricted use of the chemicals in firefighting foams at training facilities.

Geologist Ryan Bennett with the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency collects samples of treated Lake Michigan water in 2021 in a laboratory at the water treatment plant in Wilmette, Illinois.

A recent national study completed by the nonprofit Waterkeeper Alliance detected 25 different “forever chemical” compounds in Maryland waterways, the most of any other state surveyed. The samples were taken by the nonprofit’s network of riverkeepers around the country this spring and summer.

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The worst results in Maryland were in the Piscataway Creek in Prince George’s County, which starts in Joint Base Andrews and flows south through Rosaryville and enters the Potomac River at Fort Washington. The compound PFOS was detected in the creek at a level of 1364.7 parts per trillion, and several other compounds were detected at high levels.

This creek, which includes areas popular for recreational fishing, already has attracted scrutiny from the state Department of the Environment over PFAS concerns. Joint Base Andrews is a known source of PFAS contamination, according to the state agency. Military bases are frequent sources of contamination, often for their use of firefighting foam during training exercises.

In 2020, MDE began sampling fish around the state for PFAS, and discovered “highly elevated levels” in sunfish collected west of Maryland 210 in the nontidal portion of Piscataway Creek. Other fish from that area didn’t show concerning levels, but when the department returned in 2021, redbreast sunfish, yellow bullhead catfish and largemouth bass all had high levels of PFAS.

The department issued a fish consumption advisory for the creek — the first time it had ever issued such an advisory based on PFAS levels.

The department has said its testing of fish on the Eastern Shore yielded no concerning results.

The new testing by the Waterkeeper Alliance, however, showed levels of PFAS compounds in waterways across the Shore, though significantly less than in the Piscataway. The levels ranged from 1 to 6 parts per trillion in most cases, and reached as high as 14.5 parts per trillion.

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In Baltimore’s Jones Falls, the riverkeepers’ study found levels as high as 10.7 parts per trillion of one PFAS compound.

Matt Pluta, the Choptank Riverkeeper, said the findings indicate that the state should conduct further testing for PFAS in waterways. If the chemicals are accumulating in bodies of water, they soon could appear at concerning levels in fish, he said.

“Are we starting to see the beginning of what could be a really serious problem down the road?” Pluta said.


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