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Dan Rodricks

Dan Rodricks: For the sake of environment and health, back away from ‘better living through chemistry’ | COMMENTARY

The Environmental Work Group found nearly 42,000 industrial or municipal sites associated with the chemical compounds known as PFAS.

What do we do about PFAS? There seems little doubt that scientists will discover more of these “forever chemicals” during the testing of Maryland farmland and Chesapeake waters. What do we do when we find them? Can we destroy a “forever chemical”?

The term is scary, suggesting a harmful substance so durable it can’t be washed away. PFAS are chemical compounds found in our homes, in the land where cows graze and where farmers grow our food, in the waterways where we harvest fish. PFAS are “biopersistent” and “bioaccumulative,” meaning they hang out and build up over time.

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There are hundreds of PFAS, and they are everywhere. Last year, the Environmental Work Group created an interactive map showing nearly 42,000 industrial or municipal sites known or suspected to produce or use PFAS, and there’s a cluster of them in Maryland and the Mid-Atlantic.

These compounds, which have been linked to cancer, have been around for the last century. In the cause of “better living through chemistry,” they have been used in food products, clothing, nonstick cookware, furniture and carpeting.

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In June, the Environmental Protection Agency said PFAS pose a health risk to humans even in minute, almost undetectable levels in drinking water. Baltimore’s municipal water system was found to have measurable levels of the compounds, and the city has joined the parade of litigants suing chemical companies for their use of PFAS. In August, the EPA proposed officially declaring the two most common PFAS — perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl compounds — to be hazardous, putting the onus on manufacturers to report contamination and pay for cleanups. (Republicans in Congress, of course, objected to that.)

In November, the Waterkeeper Alliance, the coordinator of nonprofit waterkeeper organizations around the country, released a study of PFAS levels in dozens of U.S. watersheds, including within the Chesapeake Bay region. The study found that Maryland waterways had the highest number of detections and the widest variety of PFAS in the nation. Worrisome levels of PFAS were detected in La Trappe Creek, a tributary of the Choptank River; in Mill Creek on the Wye East River; in Urieville Lake on the Chester River; and in Mill Creek in the Sassafras River watershed. The Jones Falls in Baltimore also had high concentrations.

The sources are varied — military bases, where flame-retardant chemicals containing PFAS are used in training, wastewater treatment plants and farmland where biosolid sludge from treatment plants has been used for fertilizer.

Spreading sludge as fertilizer seemed like a good idea, but with PFAS showing up in soil — and recycled back into the food supply — the practice comes with a potentially heavy cost to the environment and to human health. People in a town in Maine were warned not to eat venison from deer that foraged on local farmland because the concentration of PFAS from fertilizer was so high.

“We tend to put our blinders on, when we do something, as to what else might be going on,” says Matt Pluta, the Choptank Riverkeeper and a leader in ShoreRivers, the nonprofit that maintains vigilance of Maryland’s Eastern Shore waterways.

Pluta’s outfit wants more testing by the state. The Maryland Department of the Environment started sampling wastewater systems and testing fish for PFAS a couple of years ago. Meanwhile, the Maryland General Assembly has so far banned the use of PFAS in firefighting foams and in the manufacture of paper products for food packaging and in rugs and carpets.

All good, but back to the big question: What can be done about “forever chemicals” that are so difficult to break down? The use of PFAS has been so widespread for so long, it’s hard to imagine eliminating these water-repellent, stain-resistant, nonstick substances — literally, the Teflon of compounds — from the world we inhabit.

“Monitoring will help us understand the extent of the problem on our land, in our water, in our food and in our bodies,” Pluta says. “From there we can begin to identify the sources — something already being done — and eliminate the production of these toxic chemicals, then destroy what’s already produced before it creates more harm.”

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Pluta says the EPA has begun to identify the best ways to remove or treat the chemicals before they get into the environment. In August, the journal Science reported that a team of researchers had found a way to break down PFAS in a lab. But eliminating PFAS in the real world presents a much larger challenge.

“We almost have to look at this issue in two ways,” says Pluta. “Can we monitor to understand and mitigate what’s already in the environment [while] preventing more from entering the environment, where we know it causes harm to animals and humans?”

Meanwhile, the EPA suggests testing your water, whether from a municipal source or a private well, and, if the level is high enough for concern, install a water-filtration system certified to reduce PFAS. Also, avoid eating fish from waters contaminated with PFAS, the agency says, and if you’re concerned about exposure from a consumer product, contact the Consumer Product Safety Commission.

That’s about the extent of EPA’s advice.

What remains is an even larger question than the one I started with: Can we get by without these compounds that gave us Scotchgard and nonstick frying pans?

“We have to ask ourselves how important these toxic chemicals are for us,” says Pluta, “and what nontoxic alternatives exist, and then decide if the production of these chemicals is even worth it.”


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