Such chemicals, like PFOA and PFOS, have been associated with cancers, hormonal disruption, obesity, and immune and reproductive problems.
Even as the Environmental Protection Agency has been trumpeting its efforts to find and clean up contamination from industrial chemicals known as PFAS, it has been allowing new chemicals in this class to enter into commerce, according to data from the agency. The EPA has allowed more than 100 new PFAS compounds to be made and imported in large quantities in the U.S. after it became aware of the health risks associated with them, and many more have entered commerce through loopholes that allow them to be omitted from the official inventory of chemicals and to bypass a basic safety review.
Since 2002, the agency has allowed 112 new PFAS chemicals to be made or imported in very large quantities, according to a list of compounds kept by the agency known as the Chemical Data Reporting database, or CDR. Companies have to report a chemical on the CDR if they make 25,000 pounds or more of it in a year in a single location. At that point, the agency was already working on a risk assessment of PFOA, which it released the next year with the grim warning that the chemical “raised a number of potential toxicity concerns,” and required additional study. “To ensure consumers are protected from any potential risks, the Agency will be conducting its most extensive scientific assessment ever undertaken on this type of chemical,” the EPA assistant administrator said at the time.
Yet, in 2006, just three years later, when the CDR was next updated, the EPA had allowed four more PFAS compounds to be added to the list of chemicals made or imported in large quantities. That year, the EPA arranged to phase out PFOA and PFOS, two of the best-known chemicals in the class, due to evidence that they caused health problems in people and animals and persisted indefinitely in the environment. By 2012, when it had become clear that PFAS had contaminated water near several industrial and military sources, the list included an additional 14 new PFAS compounds made in large amounts. Last year, when PFAS contamination was so widespread that it was described as a nationwide crisis, the latest CDR was released with 19 more new PFAS chemicals
In all, 203 PFAS have been made in or imported to the U.S. in large quantities since 1986, when the first CDR was published, according to EPA data. Ninety-six chemicals in this class are still being used in large quantities, according to the most recent list, which came out in 2016. The total number of PFAS compounds on the market with the EPA’s permission is likely far larger, since the CDR lists only a fraction of chemicals in use. A tally of chemicals kept by the agency known as the TSCA inventory currently includes 1,223 PFAS, 1,013 of which are in active use, according to an EPA spokesperson. These numbers are expected to grow because the inventory is being updated. Of these, 674 were already in use when the agency began tracking chemicals and didn’t undergo any initial scrutiny before being made or used in the U.S.
The CDR, which listed 8,707 chemicals in 2016, represents just over 10 percent of the most recent TSCA inventory, which included some 85,000 chemicals, though that proportion may change after the update of the inventory is completed in a few months. A recent study by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development identified 4,730 unique identifying numbers associated with PFAS chemicals currently in use worldwide.
Whatever the final number of PFAS on the EPA’s updated inventory, it will fall short of the actual number of these compounds in use because several loopholes allow chemicals to be used and made here without undergoing a standard safety review and being included on that official list.
The law exempts certain chemicals, including some mixtures, byproducts, and substances unlikely to be released in large quantities, from these basic requirements. The most often used of these alternate paths to market, the low-volume exemption, allows companies to begin producing less than 10,000 kilograms per year of a substance without having to undergo a full safety review. The EPA has reviewed 722 PFAS chemicals submitted for such low-volume exemptions, according to the EPA. An agency spokesperson declined to say how many of the chemicals submitted for the exemption were ultimately approved for use and import. But the EPA website shows that since June 2016, when the new chemicals law went into effect, the EPA granted low-volume exemptions for more than 80 percent of all chemicals submitted.
The EPA has had clear evidence of the dangers of PFOA and PFOS since at least 2000, when 3M sent the agency results of its internal research, showing that the chemicals accumulated in blood and caused health problems in people and animals. 3M, which first produced PFOS and PFOA, shared documentation of the harms of both chemicals, including two troubling monkey studies in which the exposed animals had immune impacts and some died. The next year, attorney Rob Bilott, who was suing DuPont on behalf a West Virginia farmer whose entire herd of cattle had died after PFOA contaminated their drinking water, mailed a packet of more than 100 documents to the EPA detailing evidence of the association between PFOA exposure and tumors, hormonal changes, and reproductive issues and other health problems.
“Every PFAS that has been studied is causing problems.”
In recent years, scientists have found other PFAS to be associated with harms, including cancers, hormonal disruption, obesity, and immune and reproductive dysfunction. “Every PFAS that has been studied is causing problems,” Linda Birnbaum, director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, told the audience at a PFAS conference last year.
The 2016 update of the Toxic Substances Control Act was meant to strengthen public health protections by increasing the scrutiny of chemicals. And right after the new law went into effect, oversight of new chemicals did improve, according to Richard Denison, lead senior scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund.
“During the first year, between 60 and 80 percent of new chemicals were having some kind of restriction, whether testing requirements, limits on their production, or use put on them,” he said. “That’s all going away now,” continued Denison, who went on to describe a recent easing of restrictions that allows new chemicals to clear the review process laid out by the law while providing only minimal information.
And while the standard review process in which manufacturers submit pre-manufacture notifications, or PMNs, to the EPA may be becoming more lax, many chemicals are circumventing this route altogether. Of the new compounds allowed onto the market since the new chemicals law went into effect in June 2016, more have bypassed the safety review the law put in place than have undergone it. Since then, the EPA has approved 570 chemicals for commercial use after receiving PMNs, which require the submission of basic safety information, such as how much companies plan to make, details of expected worker exposure, and any studies of the health effects of the chemical. During that same period, the agency granted 667 chemicals low-volume exemptions, a process that involves a more truncated review process and leaves them off the EPA’s official chemical inventory. Data on the number of chemicals newly allowed to be made and sold through other exemptions during that period were not available.
The exemption path to commerce is preferable to many companies in part because of the lower level of scrutiny it involves. “The advantage of filing [a low-volume exemption] application is that it undergoes only a 30-day review,” explains a blog post from Keller & Heckman LLP, a law firm that represents many chemical manufacturers. The post described the process as “an attractive option for high-toxicity substances.” The same substance “might well wind up being regulated” under the standard review process.
Allowing PFAS compounds to be made, used, and imported without first undergoing a standard safety review may be a violation of the Toxic Substances Control Act, according to Eve Gartner, who heads Earthjustice’s toxic chemicals program. “The statute only allows EPA to allow chemicals to bypass the usual approval process if EPA is confident that the chemical will not present unreasonable risk of injury,” said Gartner. “But there’s no way EPA can make that determination for a PFAS chemical since it’s been known since 2006 or earlier that at least some of the chemicals in this class pose very serious health harms.”
The exemptions also present an enforcement conundrum. Because there is no public record of chemicals that have been approved through the low-volume and other exemptions, there is no way to independently verify that they have met the requirements to keep them off the public list. It’s very difficult to check whether chemicals are in fact produced in quantities below the low-volume exemption’s 10,000 kg per year threshold, for instance, or released to the environment in amounts that qualify them for the Low Release and Low Exposures Exemption without knowing their names. The EPA did not respond to a question about what steps it takes to ensure that chemicals granted the low-volume exemption are not produced in quantities that exceed the allowed threshold.
Meanwhile, hundreds of chemicals that do undergo the standard safety review and are entered into the official inventory are listed without making the basic facts about them public. According to the EPA, manufacturers have withheld the name, quantities to be produced, and location of production facilities or other data for 396 PFAS chemicals on the grounds that such information is “confidential business information,” or CBI.
Consider the unnamed PFAS chemical the EPA allowed the Agfa Corporation to begin importing last year. In a consent order it issued at the time, the EPA acknowledges that the “substance may be a persistent, bioaccumulative, and toxic (PBT) chemical” and that the substance may “cause liver toxicity, blood toxicity, and male reproductive toxicity.” The document also noted that “the Ecotoxicity hazard concerns are high for effects of the potential degradation products to terrestrial wild mammals and birds,” and concluded that the “EPA is unable to determine whether the PMN substance will present an unreasonable risk to health or the environment.”
Nevertheless, on September 1, 2017, just days after state officials from New York, Alaska, Michigan, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, and Vermont wrote to the Centers for Disease Control asking for help with PFAS, which were causing health crises in their states, and as extensive contamination with the chemicals from the Wolverine shoe manufacturing factory in Michigan was coming to light, the EPA approved the new PFAS chemical’s import while withholding its name from the public. The agency did ask for a limited standard review of the chemical, which notes that it will be used at “800 unknown sites” around the country. But with critical information shielded, the report is of questionable use to the public.
The cloaking of basic facts about chemicals is par for the course, according to the Environmental Defense Fund’s Richard Denison, who asked the EPA for more than 90 new chemical applications over the past year. “The information we got back was spotty, almost everything was claimed confidential,” said Denison. “With the vast majority of new chemicals, the identity of the chemical is claimed CBI, but so is the great majority of the other information the company submits — the manufacturing process, how many sites the chemical is being processed at, worker exposure.”
Even health information, which is required by law to be public, was missing in some cases, according to Denison. “You’d see in attachment list that there’s a 78-page study. And, in the file, there was a document labeled ‘acute toxicity in mice,’ but when you opened it up, it was just one blank page. Someone had made the decision to redact that study even though it’s a health study, and it’s not eligible to be redacted.”
Companies are only allowed to shield their data in certain circumstances and are required to file a form explaining the reasons for their CBI claims. But in many cases they don’t provide that information, according to Denison. “We see massive levels of redaction with no substantiation or insufficient substantiation and no evidence that EPA has reviewed any of those claims,” he said.
The EPA declined to comment on the record.
The inaccessibility of information about chemicals complicates the work of scientists hoping to prevent and clean up PFAS contamination because it’s almost impossible to look for a compound without knowing its name and where it’s made. Detlef Knappe, an environmental engineer, co-authored a 2016 study that identified 17 PFAS, including GenX, in drinking water that originated in the Cape Fear River in North Carolina. But Knappe fears there are many more.
“Have we identified all of the PFAS in the water?” asked Knappe. “That question right now is impossible to answer in part because there is confidential business information surrounding the production of these compounds.”
It’s clear that at least one of the PFAS chemicals found in the river got there through yet another loophole that allowed it to bypass safety testing and inclusion on the EPA’s official list of chemicals in use. When DuPont began releasing what is now known as GenX in 1980, the compound wasn’t listed on the TSCA inventory because it was made in the course of manufacturing another chemical — and thus spared from reporting and a basic safety review requirements through the “byproducts exemption.” The chemical first appeared on the list in 2010, a year after the company introduced it as a replacement for PFOA and entered a legal agreement with the EPA that included restrictions on its production.
While the 2009 agreement required DuPont — and later its spinoff, Chemours — to capture and recycle much of the chemical, up until that point, it had been dumping the very same chemical for decades directly into the Cape Fear River, which is the source of drinking water for hundreds of thousands of people. The loophole allowed GenX to escape regulation because it, at first, wasn’t produced with the intent to sell.
In response to inquiries for this article, DuPont provided the following statement:
“DuPont worked closely with regulatory agencies to develop replacement materials that provide comparable properties and benefits with more favorable toxicological profiles. Throughout the time we introduced and used GenX, we always acted responsibly based on the health and environmental information that was available, and our commitment to safety, health and environmental stewardship is essential to everything we do.”
Chemours did not respond to requests for comment.
Almost 40 years after DuPont began quietly dumping that chemical into the river, the mess it has made is proving extremely difficult to clean up. “What mystifies me is the barrier for chemicals’ entry seems to be very low,” said Knappe, who has spent much of the past two years consumed with finding and cleaning up the PFAS compounds in drinking water. “But when it comes to thinking about developing regulation, the barrier is really high.”
The EPA says it is working to solve the problem. After holding a series of local meetings about PFAS contamination this summer, the agency announced that it will be releasing a plan to manage the chemicals later this year. The EPA website points to the work it’s already done studying the health impacts of the chemicals, monitoring their presence in drinking water, and coordinating with states and tribes dealing with contamination. But it’s hard to see how it can fix the country’s massive PFAS problem without addressing how these chemicals come onto the market in the first place.
In this series, Sharon Lerner exposes DuPont’s multi-decade cover-up of the severe harms to health associated with a chemical known as PFOA, or C8, and associated compounds such as PFOS and GenX.
Robert Bilott, who successfully sued DuPont over PFOA, has filed a lawsuit on behalf of everyone in the U.S. who has PFAS chemicals in their blood.
A class action lawsuit against 3M, DuPont, and Chemours was filed this week on behalf of everyone in the United States who has been exposed to PFAS chemicals. The suit was brought by Kevin Hardwick, an Ohio firefighter, but “seeks relief on behalf of a nationwide class of everyone in the United States who has a detectable level of PFAS chemicals in their blood.” Hardwick is represented by attorney Robert Bilott, who successfully sued DuPont on behalf of people in West Virginia and Ohio who had been exposed to PFOA from a plant in Parkersburg, West Virginia.
In addition to 3M, DuPont, and its spinoff, Chemours, the suit names eight other companies that produce the toxic chemicals, which are used to make firefighting foam, nonstick cookware, waterproof clothing, and many other products. While much of the litigation around PFAS has focused on PFOA and PFOS, this suit targets the entire class of PFAS chemicals, including “the newer ‘replacement’ chemicals, such as GenX.”
Rather than suing for cash penalties, the suit seeks to force the companies to create an independent panel of scientists “tasked with thoroughly studying and confirming the health effects that can be caused by contamination of human blood with multiple PFAS materials.” Such a panel would parallel the C8 Science Panel, which was created by the earlier class action litigation in West Virginia. That panel, overseen by epidemiologists approved by lawyers from both sides in the suit, found six diseases to be linked with PFOA exposure, including testicular cancer and kidney cancer.
“With multiple PFAS chemicals now contaminating the blood of people all over this country, it should be possible to build upon and expand the C8 Science Panel model to encompass a comprehensive, nationwide investigation of the impact of multiple PFAS chemicals,” Bilott said in a press release.
Critically, the settlement creating the C8 Science Panel stipulated that DuPont was unable to contest the links found by the C8 Science Panel in court, which helped lead to multiple verdicts in which the company was held liable. To date, DuPont has paid more than $1 billion in penalties as a result of the earlier PFOA litigation. The primary goal of the new lawsuit is the creation of a national study that would be similarly binding.
“The hope is it would go a long way to resolving the PFAS crisis by providing scientific answers that everybody involved would commit to,” said Bilott in an interview. “Otherwise there’s the potential for endless litigation and fighting over the meaning of the science.”
In response to an inquiry about the suit, a 3M spokesperson emailed a statement: “We are aware of the lawsuit, but have not yet had an opportunity to review the allegations. Nevertheless, 3M acted responsibly in connection with its manufacture and sale [of] PFAS and will vigorously defend its record of environmental stewardship.”
DuPont and Chemours did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry recently began a nationwide study of the health impacts of PFAS, which have contaminated drinking water via industrial pollution and the use of toxic firefighting foam, but the results will not be available for years. The new national class action suit would hold the manufacturers themselves responsible for the costs of the research.
“There is tremendous fear, anxiety, and uncertainty across the country as to the serious public health threat posed by PFAS contamination,” Bilott said. “This lawsuit could provide a mechanism for addressing and resolving those concerns through a truly comprehensive and independent, science-based process paid for by those that actually created the problem — and not by the American taxpayers.”
In this series, Sharon Lerner exposes DuPont’s multi-decade cover-up of the severe harms to health associated with a chemical known as PFOA, or C8, and associated compounds such as PFOS and GenX.
Internal studies and other documents show that 3M knew by the 1970s that PFOA and PFOS were toxic and accumulating in people's blood.
News that the Environmental Protection Agency pressured the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry to suppress a study showing PFAS chemicals to be even more dangerous than previously thought drew outrage this spring. The EPA pressure delayed the study’s publication for several months, and a similar dynamic seems to have been in play this July in Michigan, where Robert Delaney, a state scientist who tried to raise alarms about the chemicals six years ago, was largely ignored. Delaney, who delivered a report to his superiors about high levels of the chemicals in fish and the dangers they presented to people, has been heralded as prophetic. And both delays are being lamented as missed opportunities for getting critical information to the public.
But the dangers presented by these industrial chemicals have been known for decades, not just a few months or years. A lawsuit filed by Minnesota against 3M, the company that first developed and sold PFOS and PFOA, the two best-known PFAS compounds, has revealed that the company knew that these chemicals were accumulating in people’s blood for more than 40 years. 3M researchers documented the chemicals in fish, just as the Michigan scientist did, but they did so back in the 1970s. That same decade, 3M scientists realized that the compounds they produced were toxic. The company even had evidence back then of the compounds’ effects on the immune system, studies of which are just now driving the lower levels put forward by the ATSDR, as well as several states and the European Union.
The suit, which the Minnesota attorney general filed in 2010, charges that 3M polluted groundwater with PFAS compounds and “knew or should have known” that these chemicals harm human health and the environment, and “result in injury, destruction, and loss of natural resources of the State.” The complaint argues that 3M “acted with a deliberate disregard for the high risk of injury to the citizens and wildlife of Minnesota.” 3M settled the suit for $850 million in February, and the Minnesota Attorney General’s Office released a large set of documents — including internal studies, memos, emails, and research reports — detailing what 3M knew about the chemicals’ harms.
Some of the documents had been under seal since 2005 as a result of a separate lawsuit over PFAS contamination in Minnesota. And the documents had been in the EPA’s possession for at least 18 years: In 2000, 3M gave the EPA hundreds of documents it had withheld from the agency, resulting in more than $1.5 million in penalties in 2006 for 244 violations of the Toxic Substances Control Act. Even so, for years the EPA did nothing. Even as a few government officials and company scientists understood the vast dangers they posed, PFAS were allowed to spread into groundwater and then drinking water, into people and their children, into animals, plants and the food system where they remain today.
As a staff epidemiologist at 3M, Geary Olsen has had a wealth of data at his fingertips. The company he’s worked for since at least 1998 makes more than 55,000 products and has more than 90,000 employees. Olsen had access to internal information about both and has been able to combine them to pursue the kinds of scientific questions most researchers can only dream of being able to ask and answer.
In one study, for instance, Olsen looked at blood tests of 3M employees at the company’s plants in Antwerp, Belgium, and Decatur, Alabama, both of which made PFOA and PFOS, among other products. By the late 1990s when Olsen was embarking on this research, these chemicals were known within the company to accumulate in humans and alter cholesterol levels in lab animals. Because the workers had undergone three separate rounds of blood tests, Olsen was able to trace the levels of the chemicals in workers’ blood over time. And by combining his results with various clinical measures the company had been tracking in its workers, he was able to see whether there was a relationship between the chemical and these health outcomes.
Olsen’s findings, written up in an draft report in October 2001, were clear. There was a positive association between the amount of PFOA in workers’ blood and their levels of cholesterol and triglycerides, states the report, on which Olsen is listed as the principal investigator. The report devoted more than 20 tables to triglycerides and cholesterol, detailing a relationship that later studies would confirm: PFOA increased people’s levels of triglycerides, which are a type of fat, and cholesterol, both of which can increase the chance of heart disease. The results were in keeping with rat evidence, as the report noted.
Yet less than two years later, when Olsen and the three co-authors on the report — all 3M employees — published an article based on the same research, it downplayed this key finding. Indeed, according to the study, which ran in the March 2003 issue of the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, “There were no substantial changes in hematological, lipid, hepatic, thyroid, or urinary parameters consistent with the known toxicological effects of PFOS or PFOA” — a statement that appears to contradict the authors’ earlier finding.
In the 19th paragraph of the 2003 article, the authors note that PFOA was “positively associated with cholesterol and triglycerides” and that “serum PFOS was positively associated with the natural log of serum cholesterol … and triglycerides,” but dismiss these effects as “minimal.” The article omits most of the information that was contained in the draft’s tables and clearly laid out the increase in cholesterol and triglycerides in exposed workers.
The minimizing of this bad news is just one of several instances in which 3M seems to have downplayed, spun, and tailored its own research to make these two PFAS chemicals and others it produced appear safer than they were, according to the documents made public by Minnesota’s attorney general.
In some cases, relatively reassuring findings about the chemicals made their way into the scientific literature, while other more concerning ones — like the 1993 observation that goats passed PFOS to their offspring through their milk, or the 1998 discovery that PFOS had made its way into eagles found in the wild, or the association between PFOA and lipids that Geary identified — did so only after many years. In several cases, 3M appears to have not pursued further research based on discoveries that suggested the chemicals posed harm. And the company also relied on several paid scientists, including John Giesy, now a professor at the University of Saskatchewan, who weighed in on the environmental impact of PFOA and PFOS without disclosing their funding from 3M.
In an email, a 3M spokesperson strenuously denied that the company tailored its research around PFAS, writing that “neither 3M nor Dr. Olsen has distorted or suppressed the scientific evidence regarding PFAS in any way.” The email also pointed out that the company eventually gave the EPA Olsen’s 2001 report, which at this point has “been publicly available for well over a decade.” While acknowledging that Olsen found an association between cholesterol levels and PFOA, the 3M spokesperson noted that the effect of PFOA he documented in some workers — increasing cholesterol levels — was inconsistent with those observed in rats, whose levels decreased after exposure to the chemical, and that “the science is complex and neither the study nor the larger body of scientific evidence on this issue establishes causation.”
In a separate email, the 3M spokesperson wrote that “the Minnesota Attorney General released a small set of documents that should not be taken out of context in an effort to distort the full record regarding 3M’s actions with respect to PFOA or PFOS. 3M acted reasonably and responsibly in connection with products containing PFAS, and stands behind its environmental stewardship record.”
Giesy did not respond to a request for comment, but the University of Saskatchewan provided a statement saying that “Prof. Giesy rejects the unproven claims, which were never tried or tested in court.” Giesy “encouraged the company to voluntarily cease production of the chemical,” the university’s statement goes on to say, also noting that it conducted an investigation, which determined that Giesy had not violated university policy. The statement also pointed out that Giesy has not worked for 3M since he began working at the University of Saskatchewan in 2006.
Paul Brandt-Rauf, editor of the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, declined to comment, citing pending letters to the editor in his journal.
Yet the documents released by the Minnesota Attorney General’s Office demonstrate that 3M’s communications strategy altered the scientific record on PFAS by prettifying the scientific picture of PFOA and PFOS over the more than four decades it produced them.
While 3M readily paid its fines, there was no undoing the delay in regulatory action that resulted from the previous decades of keeping its damning information secret. While the studies sat in 3M’s private files, PFAS chemicals from the company’s facilities were entering the water in Minnesota, Alabama, and elsewhere, and PFOS and PFOA were accumulating in the environment and in people, the vast majority of whom now have the chemicals in their blood.
The lag in getting scientific information to regulators in turn resulted in prolonged public exposure to the chemicals, as Philippe Grandjean argues in an editorial in the journal Environmental Health. A physician and environmental health scholar who has studied the immune effects of PFAS and provided expert testimony for Minnesota in the 3M case, Grandjean argues that regulators should learn from this massive misstep, and that substitutes for PFOS and PFOA “should be subjected to prior scrutiny before widespread usage.”
The history of PFAS compounds has mostly revolved around DuPont. That giant company also knew for decades that PFOA was escaping its plant, leaching into nearby drinking water, accumulating in the blood of its workers, and harming animals tested in its own labs. Since 2004, DuPont has paid more than $1 billion in class-action litigation and several related suits filed by people living near its plant in Parkersburg, West Virginia — and faced massive public outrage over its actions.
To the extent that 3M has come up in coverage of the fast-growing PFAS story, it’s largely been as a footnote — and a foil. 3M was the company that invented PFOA and sold the toxic stuff to DuPont, whose corporate image was besmirched by the news of its deceptions around PFOA. DuPont has also faced a firestorm of protest over GenX, its similarly toxic replacement for PFOA.
As 3M executives have pointed out on numerous occasions, their company phased out PFOA six years before DuPont did. (DuPont never manufactured PFOS.) “3M has acted appropriately and on the principled path,” William A. Brewer III, a partner in a law firm representing 3M in perfluorinated chemical-related litigation, told me when I first wrote about Minnesota’s lawsuit in 2016. “They immediately reported it, investigated it, and frankly decided to exit the C8 chemistries in their entirety well more than a decade before anyone else who was a competitor.”
But the documents from the Minnesota suit upend the narrative of 3M as the good corporate citizen.
In 1948, 3M, or the Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Company, as it was then called, acquired the patent for a process of creating compounds out of fluorine. Manhattan Project scientists — several of whom landed at 3M after the war — had already used fluorine to separate the uranium used for the atom bomb. Their new method bonded carbon to fluorine atoms, creating novel materials such as an extraordinarily stable fluid called PFOA. 3M executives believed that the substance might have commercial applications, though they didn’t at first know what those might be. In 1950, after two years of conferring with various companies, 3M landed a deal to sell PFOA to DuPont to make Teflon. After that, “we were in business,” a 3M executive later recalled.
3M would continue to sell PFOA to DuPont for more than four decades. Starting in the early 1950s, the company also made PFOS, a closely related compound that wound up in hundreds of products, including the company’s own Scotchgard fabric protector, which, by the end of the 1950s, was being applied to both upholstery and clothing; and firefighting foam that 3M provided exclusively to the U.S. military for decades. 3M went on to market some of these its fluorochemical products as “the solution for your problems.”
3M’s fluorochemicals helped the company expand into a behemoth worth more than $120 billion. But the story of 3M “is clearly not a story of molecules, compounds, good science or technology,” as the company’s own corporate history explained in 1991. “It is a story of people.” Indeed, while 3M was distinguished by both its industrial chemistry and occupational health, it was individuals who made the fateful choices about which lines of scientific inquiry to pursue — and which to share with the public.
The first scientists to raise the alarm about the fluorine-based chemicals didn’t work for 3M. In August 1975, a University of Florida researcher named Warren Guy called the company to get help with a medical mystery his colleague, Donald Taves, had stumbled upon. Taves had detected a form of fluoride in his own blood that hadn’t been found in blood before. The fluorine didn’t break down and appeared to be part of a large and stable molecule. The discovery sparked the scientists to look for and find fluorinated compounds in other blood samples, as they described in a 1975 paper. Guy was calling 3M to ask whether Teflon and Scotchgard might be the source of the compounds.
“We plead ignorance,” one of 3M’s chemists, G. H. Crawford, recounted in a summary he wrote up after the call. But within a few months, staff scientists knew quite a bit about the fluorinated compound found in blood. They compared the unique spectrum of its own patented compound, PFOS, with that of the chemical identified by Taves and Guy and found that they matched, according to a timeline the company compiled in 1977.
During the phone call, Crawford also suggested that Guy check blood samples from “uncivilized areas, e.g. New Guinea” where Teflon and Scotchgard weren’t in use. Later testing of historical blood samples would show Crawford’s suspicion to be spot on. After their introduction into consumer products in the 1950s, the fluorinated compounds began to appear in blood samples from around the world going as far back as 1957.
Closer to home, the chemicals were clearly accumulating in their own factories. By 1976, 3M measured fluorochemicals in the blood of workers at its plant in Cottage Grove Minnesota at “1,000 times normal.” The chemical appeared to accumulate in animals, too. Mice fed “Scotchban,” a grease-proofing 3M product that contained PFOS, had “4,000 times normal organic fluorine compound,” in their blood, the timeline also noted. By 1979, the company noted that samples from Red Cross blood donors also contained trace levels of the fluorinated chemical.
But it’s clear that the scientists’ fielding Guy’s phone call had yet to grasp the implications of the situation. After the call, Crawford tried to put a positive spin on the dawning realization that their chemical had found its way into Americans’ blood.
“If it is confirmed to our satisfaction that everybody is going around with fluorocarbon surfactants in their bloodstreams with no apparent ill-effect, are there some medical possibilities that would bear looking into?” Crawford asked in his notes. Perhaps PFOS might help with hardening of the arteries, “kidney blockage, senility and the like,” Crawford mused, going on to suggest animal experiments “both from a defensive point of view and for the above (to me) intriguing reasons.”
While the company was pondering the possibility that the massive human experiment it had launched might have some positive outcomes, it was becoming clear that it would almost certainly have some negative ones. According to minutes from a 1978 meeting about 3M’s experiments on rats and monkeys, PFOA and PFOS “should be regarded as toxic.” Disturbingly, PFOA caused changes in rats’ livers at levels lower than that measured in one of its workers, according to the memo, which described the finding as suggestive of “a possible human health problem.” Nevertheless, the eight staff members present at the meeting decided that the toxicity “does not constitute a substantial risk and should not be reported [to the EPA] at this time.”
Two studies on monkeys done later that year might have been seen as even more alarming — and worth sharing with the public. One had to be stopped because all the monkeys given PFOS died (“Incorrect (too high) feeding levels were used and all animals died within the first few days”). In the other, monkeys given PFOA developed tiny lesions on their spleen, lymph nodes, and bone marrow — organs central in maintaining the body’s immune defenses.
The next year, a review of the internal studies described PFOS as “the most toxic” of three compounds studied, “certainly more toxic than anticipated,” and recommended that “lifetime rodent studies should be undertaken as soon as possible.” But from the documents released and a search of the medical literature, 3M appears not to have undertaken the studies suggested in the review. Nor did it publish either of the monkey studies. And the company waited 22 years before giving the troubling studies to the EPA or reporting the evidence that the chemical was in the blood of the general public.
Still, 3M appears to have been worried enough about the implications of the studies to seek advice from a well-known toxicologist named Harold Hodge. At a confidential meeting with company executives held in San Francisco in June 1979, Hodge noted that the company’s research on exposed workers showed “indications of liver effects.” Because both PFOS and PFOA also caused liver changes in rats, Hodge suggested that 3M find out whether PFOS “or its metabolites are present in man, what level they are present, and the degree of persistence (half-life) of these materials.” If the levels were high and widespread and the half life long, he said, “we could have a serious problem.”
In a phone call a week after the meeting, Hodge asked that a note be added to the minutes to stress that the research he was proposing was “of utmost importance.” Later that year, another 3M scientist, M. T. Case, underscored Hodge’s suggestion, writing in a memo to his colleagues that “it is paramount to begin now an assessment of the potential (if any) of long term (carcinogenic) effects for these compounds which are known to persist for a long time in the body and thereby give long term chronic exposure.”
In 1980, the company came close to disclosing how widespread its chemicals had become, according to questions drafted in anticipation of the news reaching the general public. “I have heard that fluorochemicals are persistent. Does this mean that [they] are like PCBs and DDT?” one sample question asked, referring to chemicals widely used in electrical equipment and pesticides, respectively, that accumulated in the environment and increased cancer rates. The proper answer, according to the company’s guide was “NO.” But it turned out no rehearsal was necessary. 3M didn’t announce the presence of PFOS or PFOA in human blood — nor did the bad news leak out. And for more than 20 years, as evidence emerged that tumors in exposed lab animals were related to PFOA exposure, that the levels of the chemicals in 3M workers’ blood rose over time, and that their cancer rates were elevated compared to the general population, the questions about the environmental and health consequences of the secret were neither asked nor answered.
The real-life implications of this careful curation of the scientific record on PFAS is still coming into relief as the public begins to grapple with the likelihood that the EPA’s safety levels for these two chemicals are far too high. A study released by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry in June calculated that the limit for PFOS and PFOA in drinking water ought to be around 7 and 11 parts per trillion or ppt, respectively, just a fraction of the 70 ppt that the EPA set for the chemicals in 2016.
ATSDR and the state of New Jersey, which has calculated similar safety levels for both chemicals, arrived at the lower number for PFOS in part by including studies showing that very low levels of the chemical affect the immune system. The European Food Safety Authority also recently considered evidence of their immune effects when calculating even lower safety levels — 6.5 ppt for PFOS and just 3 for PFOA. And Philippe Grandjean, a physician and environmental health scholar who has studied the immune effects of PFAS and provided expert testimony for Minnesota in the 3M case, calculated that the safety levels for both PFOS and PFOA should be less than 1 ppt.
In contrast, the EPA did not include studies showing immune effects in its calculations. When asked why it didn’t include these studies when devising its health advisory levels for PFOS and PFOA, the EPA did not respond. The agency instead provided the following statement:
EPA remains committed to evaluating PFOA and PFOS under the regulatory determination process using the best available science. As a part of the evaluation, EPA will be reviewing all newly available scientific information including the ATSDR report. EPA is taking steps to accelerate the determination process before the existing statutory deadline.
The statutory deadline is 2021.
While the immune effects of PFOS and PFOA have entered the public conversation only in recent years, 3M has possessed evidence suggesting that its signature chemical affected the immune system as far back as 1978, when its monkey study showed the tiny lesions on immune organs. An internal summary of research noted both PFOA’s liver and immune effects. At a 1983 meeting of the company’s Fluorochemical Study Committee, a member of the toxicology team listed “immunosuppressive effects” as one of three areas of follow-up research given the highest priority, according to meeting notes.
Yet the company didn’t publish anything about how PFOA affected the immune system, even as it was internally gathering more damning evidence. In 1991, a physician named Frank Gilliland came to work at 3M for a year while he was getting his Ph.D. in environmental health. Gilliland wrote his thesis on the health effects of PFOA in 3M workers in 1992, looking at the effects of the chemical on 115 male workers at one of the company’s plants.
The paper describes his finding that the amount of PFOA in workers’ blood correlated to levels of various hormones. Gilliland also calculated that workers in one of 3M’s plants who had at least 10 years of exposure to PFOA had a death rate from prostate cancer that was three times that of workers who weren’t exposed to PFOA. And his thesis explained that the chemical affected the immune response to foreign chemicals.
While Gilliland went on to publish the prostate cancer finding, an internal paper he wrote that further explored PFOA’s effects on the workers’ immune system never saw the light of day. His draft explained that the level of critical immune cells in workers was “significantly correlated” with their total fluoride levels, “suggesting that cell-mediated immunity may be affected by PFOA.” Gilliland’s paper also noted the company’s 1978 monkey studies — and that “no follow-up studies of these observations have been reported.”
But the company didn’t publish or follow up on Gilliland’s work either, based on the documents released. In a 1993 memo, 3M’s medical director, Jeff Mandel, wrote to the company’s Fluorochemical Steering Committee members that Gilliland had three research papers in the works, all of which were “negative for the most part.” Mandel wrote that “we’re working with him regarding some of the wording.” But none of the papers in the memo came out in any form. And 15 years would pass after Gilliland’s finding that PFOA affected immunity — and 30 years after the monkey study suggested a similar impact — before independent scientists documented the effect of PFOA in humans.
One of the reasons scientists in the field didn’t explore whether PFOA, PFOS, and other chemicals in their class could affect the body’s ability to fight off infection and toxicity was because they believed they couldn’t affect the human body. “Word was that the compounds were inert,” said Grandjean, who considered and rejected the idea of researching how the chemicals affected immunity when 3M took the compounds off the market in 2000.
It was only in 2008, after a study showed that PFOA affected the immune systems of mice, that Grandjean and his team went back to study the chemicals’ impact on humans. “We were already looking at PCBs, which we know are immunotoxic, to see if they affected how children responded to vaccines,” said Grandjean. When his team did the same research with PFAS, they noted a dramatic effect. “These responses were much stronger than anything we can attribute to PCBs.”
Another 3M scientist made discoveries about PFAS that the company didn’t readily follow up or publish. In the 1990s, Rich Purdy, an environmental scientist at 3M, detected PFOS in the blood of eagles. He also found that rats that hadn’t been purposely exposed to the chemical had it in their liver, likely because their food was made from fish that had been exposed. (3M had already measured the chemicals in fish in the Tennessee River near its Decatur, Alabama plant back in 1979.) Alarmed, Purdy reasoned that whales, seals, and other fish-eating animals might also be contaminated and urged the company to sample a few species to find out. But his superiors didn’t share his urgency.
“I’m not sure there is a need to support or refute the hypothesis within any particular time frame,” a 3M attorney named Thomas DiPasquale wrote to his colleagues in the company’s corporate division in a 1999 email. Purdy had also suggested alerting the EPA to his concern that PFOS was spreading through the food chain, but his bosses came up with a slower and more measured response.
The year before, the company had laid out its strategic plan for releasing scientific information. In 1998, it had finally provided the EPA with some of the evidence that its chemicals were in blood samples from the general public. In anticipation of the public release of that information, 3M devised a schedule of publications that would “allow the serum level findings to be placed in an understandable, credible context which demonstrates that there is no medical or scientific basis to attribute any adverse health effects to 3M products.”
Purdy believed that the plan to delay the follow-up was another instance of putting the company’s need to protect its self-interest over the environment:
Plan! That is the same stalling technique you have been using for the last year. There is a high probability that PFOS is killing marine mammals and you want another plan when we could have had data to support the risk assessment long ago. You were given a plan in 1983. Again in the early 90s. And you authorized no testing …
You continually ignore our plans and start new plans that slows the collection of data essential for our risk assessments. You slow our progress in understanding the extent of PFOS pollution and damage. For 20 years the division has been stalling the collection of data needed for evaluating the environmental impact of fluorochemicals.
Shortly afterward, Purdy reached his limit, according to a resignation letter he sent in 1999. In it, he explained that his decision to leave was “prompted by my profound disappointment in 3M’s handling of the environmental risks associated with the manufacture and use” of PFOS. While, years before, the company’s planned questions and answers had sought to dispel any comparison to PCBs, Purdy described PFOS as “the most insidious pollutant since PCB.”
I have been assured that action will be taken — yet I see slow or no results. I am told the company is concerned, but their actions speak to different concerns than mine. I can no longer participate in the process that 3M has established for the management of PFOS and precursors. For me it is unethical to be concerned with markets, legal defensibility and image over environmental safety. …
3M told those of us working on the fluorochemical project not to write down our thoughts or have email discussions on issues because of how our speculations could be viewed in a legal discovery process. This has stymied intellectual development on the issue, and stifled discussion on the serious ethical implications of decisions.
I have worked within the system to learn more about this chemical and to make the company aware of the dangers associated with its continued use. But I have continually met roadblocks, delays, and indecision. For weeks on end I have received assurances that my samples would be analyzed soon — never to see results.
Purdy later changed his mind and returned to work at the company, according to a letter from his wife, who was clearly troubled by his decision. He didn’t respond to requests for comment. In any case, within a year of his letter, everything had changed. In 2000, after giving the EPA hundreds of its studies, 3M announced it would cease production of PFOS and PFOA. While the company claimed it made the decision voluntarily, an EPA official at the time said that the agency was prepared to remove PFOS from the market based on research that “suggests to us is that there are potentially long-term consequences.”
Subsequent research has validated the EPA’s suspicion. Since 2000, the number of scientific articles published on the health effects of PFAS has increased more than tenfold. The findings have linked the chemicals to a wide range of health effects in people, including testicular and kidney cancer, obesity, impaired fertility, thyroid disease, and the onset of puberty. The increased cholesterol and lipids in blood that Olsen noted in his 2001 paper have also been identified in several recent studies. And the immune effects have also been borne out, with one recent study by Grandjean showing that levels of the chemicals in infants’ blood were related to their immune response at age 5.
But the lag in awareness of these problems makes addressing them infinitely harder than it would have been when they had first surfaced. It’s now too late to contain the chemicals that originated in 3M’s laboratories. Since PFAS compounds were first traced in a few workers and animals, the chemicals have gone from being an occupational hazard to one shouldered by everyone. Blood testing done in 2003 found PFOA in 99.7 percent of more than 2,000 samples in the U.S. PFOS was in 99.9 percent. And it’s not just those two chemicals. In 2005, 3M tested human blood from around the country for 15 different PFAS — and found 14 of them.
The number of people thought to be affected by this contamination continues to expand as the scientific information is refined. In Minnesota, where 3M is headquartered and the lawsuit was filed, the plume of PFAS that was first detected in the 1960s as leaching from a few landfills now covers 100 square miles of groundwater and affects the drinking water of some 125,000 people in the Twin Cities area.
PFAS water contamination is now a national — and international — issue. Using data collected by the EPA, the Environmental Working Group calculated that more than 100 million Americans may be have some level of PFAS in their drinking water.
3M insists that “the presence of PFAS in blood does not mean that an individual’s health has been harmed and does not mean that there is a risk of adverse health effects. While the science behind PFASs is complex, the vast body of scientific evidence, which consists of decades of research conducted by independent third parties and 3M, does not show that PFOS or PFOA negatively impact human health at the levels typically found in the environment,” according to a statement the company provided in response to questions for this story.
But even as the company has continued to defend its chemicals, 3M’s legal problems have mounted along with the scientific evidence. States, counties, and individuals have filed dozens of suits against the company over the past two years, many of them based firefighting foam that contain PFAS chemicals.
Even if victory awaits those plaintiffs — as a form of it did in Minnesota — it’s not clear that justice will be done. The state will be using its $850 million settlement from 3M to address its massive water contamination problem. But it will be impossible to fully remove the chemicals from the groundwater or lakes or the Mississippi River, or any of the areas where it’s contaminated groundwater.
The people living in these places — and grappling with the realization that they have been ingesting these chemicals for years — have no recourse. “We don’t have some wonder medicine,” said Grandjean. “When I talk to residents about this, I convey the bad news. I’m a physician. I thought I was getting into medicine to solve problems. But all I can do is say, you’ve got this stuff in your body and it’s going to stay there for a long time and there’s nothing we can do about it.”
While there’s no way to go back and undo the environmental and health damage that’s already been done, criminal prosecutions could help prevent a similar situation in the future, according to Rena Steinzor, a professor at the University of Maryland School of Law and author of “Why Not Jail? Industrial Catastrophes, Corporate Malfeasance, and Government Inaction.”
“Criminal law allows us to go after people right now who withhold information they’re supposed to give the government,” said Steinzor. “If lying to the government is prosecuted as a crime with respect to the chemical industry — as it should be — things will get better quick.”
Whether such environmental misconduct might be taken more seriously in the future, 3M’s failure to act sooner on the danger of PFAS still has yet to be fully addressed. Geary Olsen, whose published paper omitted the finding detailed in his internal study, continues to work at 3M. 3M declined to make Olsen available for comment. John Giesy has stayed on as a professor at the University of Saskatchewan, even after it was revealed that he spun the science on PFAS after receiving more than $2 million in grants from the company. And Rich Purdy, who was so distraught by the company’s delays in releasing his research, recently prepared to testify for 3M, according to his wife.
Some researchers, like Frank Gilliland, who detailed the immune impacts of PFOA in his graduate thesis, left 3M “less idealistic” than when he began his work there, he told me in a recent interview. Reached at the University of Southern California, where he is now a professor of medicine, Gilliland said that PFOS and PFOA “should have come off the market sooner.” He said his current academic setting, in contrast to 3M, was a place of “free-ranging scientific inquiry.”
Philippe Grandjean, who has been a physician and environmental health researcher for more than 40 years, has also been affected by the realization of just how long he and others were kept in the dark about the harms of the chemicals. “I lost my confidence in the scientific literature,” said Grandjean. As he sees it, his whole profession has been stained by the experience. “We in my field have failed.”
In this series, Sharon Lerner exposes DuPont’s multi-decade cover-up of the severe harms to health associated with a chemical known as PFOA, or C8, and associated compounds such as PFOS and GenX.
While the dangers of PFOA and PFOS are widely known, very little is known about the other chemicals in their class, PFAS.
While the dangers of PFOA and PFOS are widely known, very little is known about the other chemicals in their class, PFAS. Here is some of the emerging science on how other per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances affect people.
The revelation that PFOS accumulated in people’s blood led 3M to stop making the chemical in 2001. Disturbingly, 3M, the Minnesota-based company that made both PFOS and the related chemical PFOA, had found that virtually every blood sample it tested contained both of these manmade molecules. By 2006, the Environmental Protection Agency coordinated an industry-wide phase-out of PFOA and PFOS, both of which had been used in firefighting foam and various stain-resistant and nonstick products.
Yet, PFOA and PFOS were not alone. In 2005, 3M tested blood samples from the general population for 15 other PFAS chemicals — and found 14 of them. The company submitted the results of this testing to the EPA in 2005, as the law requires chemical manufacturers to do when they have evidence that their products pose a substantial risk to human health or the environment. Most of the chemicals they had detected were present in every one of 36 samples tested, which were gathered from various parts of the U.S. and Canada.
But unlike the two best-known PFAS chemicals, which have been phased out in this country, many of the others aren’t going away. Several are still in commercial use and some have been offered up as safe alternatives to PFOS and PFOA. The EPA has received additional studies from manufacturers raising health concerns about each of these chemicals, but has yet to set safety limits for any of them.
Though it falls into the “shorter chain” group of the PFAS chemicals, which generally exit the body more quickly, PFHxS stays in humans for more than five years — longer than either PFOS or PFOA, and poses some of the same health threats that those chemicals do. PFHxS, which 3M made until 2002 and is now found in many sites where firefighting foam was used, is more toxic to the liver than PFOS, according to a recent report from the Danish Ministry of the Environment.
Research has linked PFHxS to liver and thyroid disease, prostate cancer and arthritis, as well as immune and reproductive problems in adults. In children, the vast majority of whom have PFHxS in their blood, studies have linked the chemical with adverse birth outcomes, neurobehavioral problems, immune dysfunction, and weight gain.
The mounting data has lead European regulators to identify PFHxS as a “substance of very high concern.” The Stockholm Convention, which oversees an international agreement on toxic chemicals, is investigating whether PFHxS should be banned globally.
When it was promoting a new version of “green” firefighting foam that contained six-carbon PFAS, known as C6, a group representing the fluorochemical industry and foam manufacturers acknowledged that PFHxA was “a possible breakdown product” of the foam. The chemical has since been found in water at AFFF-contaminated sites and in spots at 5,000 times the EPA’s safety level for PFOS and PFOA.
The Firefighting Foam Coalition, an industry lobby, described PFHxA as having “a low hazard profile” and issued assurances that C6 foams are “not considered to be bioaccumulative.” But there is ample evidence that PFHxA does, in fact, enter and stay in people’s bodies. In addition to 3M’s 2005 report, which found PFHxA in a quarter of blood samples, a report DuPont submitted to the EPA in 2009 showed that PFHxA had accumulated in the blood of eight out of nine workers tested at its Chambers Works factory in New Jersey.
Another 3M study showed that the six-carbon molecule was toxic to rats. The research report, which the company submitted to the EPA in 2003 as an adverse incident report, summarized an experiment in which albino rats were given three different doses of PFHxA. Even in the group given lowest dose, all five exposed rats became uncoordinated and lethargic and drooled excessively, according to the study. Two had difficulty breathing and one died during the 14-day experiment.
According to an attorney representing the company, “3M generally believes that these chemicals present no harm to the environment or human health at levels they are typically found in the environment. Certainly, 3M sold its AFFF products with instructions regarding their safe use and disposal.”
3M introduced the four-carbon molecule PFBS in 2003 to replace PFOS in some products, such as Scotchgard. PFBS was billed as safe in part because it clears the human body more quickly than PFOS and PFOA. Yet PFBS was detected in 33 of the 36 blood samples 3M analyzed in 2005.
According to a report 3M submitted to the EPA in 2008, PFBS also accumulated in the blood and livers of rats. Another adverse incident report, which 3M submitted to the EPA in 2010, showed that, much like PFOS and PFOA, PFBS affects the livers of mice, as well as their cholesterol and fat levels.
A 3M spokesperson did not respond to questions about PFBS.
Like some of the other compounds in its class, PFBS affects both the placental cells and neurodevelopment, according to the Danish report, which also noted that, while it cleared the blood more quickly than some related chemicals, PFBS was found to accumulate in other organs. Autopsies of human bodies found elevated levels of PFBS in the lungs. Levels of the chemical were significantly higher in children with asthma compared to those without the disease.
The chemicals that stay in our bodies after we die also enter us before we are born, according to research that has found PFAS in umbilical cord blood, in which their levels appear to affect birth weight and immune response.
“When all these thing were put into the marketplace, no one said, ‘There is one downside: It’s going to contaminate the entire living world, including any babies,’” said Ken Cook, president and co-founder of Environmental Working Group.
While the phasing-out of PFOS and PFOA has resulted in a gradual decrease in blood levels of those chemicals, “We went down the same road again,” said Cook. “With the replacements, the same problem is going to take us through another generation of babies.”
Correction: August 3, 2018
An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that 3M tested blood samples for 16 PFAS chemicals and found 15 of them in 2005. In fact, 3M tested for 15 PFAS chemicals and found 14 of them.
This article was reported in partnership with The Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute.
The U.S. military is spending billions to clean up drinking water contaminated with toxic firefighting foam while continuing to use dangerous new formulas.
About an hour north of Seattle at the northern edge of Puget Sound, Whidbey Island is quiet, forested, and, in Bob Farnsworth’s neighborhood, idyllic. In the 22 years he’s lived on Whidbey, where he served as a command master chief at the Naval Air Base, Farnsworth, 61, has regularly crabbed and fished for salmon and enjoyed fruit from his own trees. His home, which he recently had appraised for $469,000, is less than a mile down a fir-tree lined road from a sandy beach. Until this summer, Farnsworth, who retired from the Navy in 2007, had been planning to sell it and move to Oklahoma to live near his grandchildren.
After a 30-year career, Farnsworth has an enduring love for the Navy. But last February, he discovered a toxic side to the Navy’s presence in his life: His well, which he had used to water his fruit trees, cook, and fill his children’s and grandchildren’s glasses over the years, tested positive for three chemicals that had apparently seeped in from foam used for firefighting on the base. One chemical, PFOS, was present at 3,800 parts per trillion, more than 54 times a safety standard set by the Environmental Protection Agency in 2016.
Because of the contamination, Farnsworth worried that he wouldn’t be able to sell his house — and decided not to put it on the market. Suddenly, a place that had been a haven felt more like a trap. “We feel like we’re hostage here,” he said recently. The realization that he and his wife had been exposed to the chemicals, which have been linked to prostate cancer and thyroid diseases, cast the struggles they have had over the past years with these very diseases in a new light. “I don’t know what was related,” he said.
After testing their wells, the Navy provided Farnsworth and several of his neighbors whose wells tested positive for PFOS and PFOA with clean water. Spokesperson Lt. Ben Anderson said the Navy plans to continue providing bottled water and ultimately provide a clean water source to all affected families. But many on the island feel the response is an inadequate fix to the contamination that has upended many of their lives and decreased their property values.
“What the Navy is doing makes no sense,” said Steven Swanson, a retired physician living near Farnsworth whose private well contained 440 ppt of PFOA. Swanson, who also has prostate issues, felt that the Navy didn’t share his urgency about cleaning up the chemicals. “They’re just hoping this will die down, and people will get used to living with contaminated water.”
According to a statement issued by Anderson, “Navy officials at NAS Whidbey Island, Navy Region Northwest and Naval Facilities Engineering Command Northwest are fully committed to the timely and successful cleanup of PFAS contamination, and will be involved until all required actions are complete.”
Contamination from the military’s use of firefighting foam, or AFFF, isn’t limited to Whidbey Island. The foam has been used on hundreds of bases around the country since at least the early 1970s to put out emergency blazes and, far more often, to douse fires purposefully set to prepare firefighters for those emergencies. Chemicals in the foam, known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, have seeped into water in and around those bases. (PFOA and PFOS are just the two best-known examples of the much larger class of PFAS molecules.) Because mounting research links these chemicals with a host of health problems, including kidney, testicular, bladder, and prostate cancer, as well as immune, reproductive, and hormonal dysfunction, the contamination amounts to a “seminal public health challenge,” as Patrick Breysse, director of the Centers for Disease Control’s National Center for Environmental Health, recently described it.
Yet even as the Army, Navy, and Air Force have begun the slow process of addressing the contamination, which is expected to cost upwards of $2 billion, the Department of Defense isn’t abandoning this line of chemicals. While some of the precise formulations that caused the contamination are off the table, the U.S. military is in the midst of an expensive effort to replace older foam with a newer formulation that contains only slightly tweaked versions of the same problematic compounds.
Though marketed as environmentally responsible, this new foam contains PFAS chemicals based on slightly shorter carbon chains — six, as opposed to eight, atoms. While many of these shorter compounds exit the human body more quickly, they still accumulate in blood and other tissues. And, like the longer compounds that have been the focus of environmental concerns across the country and around the world, these shorter molecules will persist indefinitely in the environment and never break down on their own.
As with PFOS and PFOA, the EPA has evidence that these shorter chain PFAS molecules accumulate in people’s bodies and the environment, posing threats to both. Some of the studies showing the dangers of these persistent chemicals came from the manufacturers themselves, according to documents obtained by The Intercept.
While several other countries have taken a precautionary approach and are using products without PFAS to put out jet fuel fires, the U.S. recently decided to continue investing in this line of persistent contaminants. As of December 15, the Air Force had swapped out the older foam at 173 of 176 installations, according to the Air Force Civil Engineer Center, which provides engineering services to Air Force installations. Three remote sites experienced seasonal shipping delays, but should have their older AFFF replaced by the newer version in the spring, according to Air Force spokesperson Mark Kinkade.
Meanwhile, the Navy “is developing a policy to require the testing, removal, and safe disposal of AFFF installed in firefighting systems (e.g., in an AFFF tank on a firetruck or hangar system) over the next 1-2 years,” according to Anderson, the Navy spokesperson, and will be replacing that foam with “newly qualified foams.” And the Army has planned and programmed funding to replace the current stocks in fiscal year 2019, according to a statement from Army spokesperson Wayne V. Hall.
The Air Force has already spent $10.8 million on replacing and incinerating old AFFF, according to Air Force spokesperson Laura M. McAndrews. The cost of that transition is predicted to reach more than $74 million as the process stretches on until at least 2020, according to a 2015 Air Force PowerPoint presentation. That document, along with many others cited in this article, was obtained through discovery in a lawsuit against the U.S. government over PFAS contamination filed by attorney Mark Cuker, who shared it with The Intercept.
Some of that expense is purchasing what Air Force Fire Chief James Podolske referred to in an August 2016 memo obtained by The Intercept as a “new environmentally responsible six carbon chain formula” of AFFF. The new foam contains no PFOS and “little or no PFOA,” according to an Air Force press release. Instead, it uses the closely related molecules that pose many of the same dangers.
The Navy began requiring its vessels to carry AFFF in 1967 after 134 sailors died in a fire aboard the USS Forrestal. The aircraft carrier had been off the coast of north Vietnam, when a power surge caused a rocket to fire and strike a fuel tank, igniting leaking fuel and causing nine bombs to explode. The fire burned all night and turned into one of the worst disasters in U.S. naval history. (Lt. Cmdr. John McCain, then a pilot of one of the Sky Hawks aboard the Forrestal, jumped from the nose of his plane and ran through the flames to safety.)
AFFF was a new compound then: Navy scientists had been working with Minnesota-based chemical company 3M on developing the foam since the early 1960s; in 1966, the Navy patented the material, which creates a thin layer over the surface of the fuel that smothers the flames and prevents the release of vapor that could otherwise reignite. According to military specifications, the foam required a key ingredient: a “fluorinated surfactant,” a chemical to help make the foam spreadable. 3M was the military’s only supplier until the mid-1990s, when it was joined by several other companies.
PFOS-based foam was widely adopted. Eventually, the Department of Defense used it at all aircraft hangars, airfields, and aircraft fueling stations, among other locations. The Federal Aviation Administration adopted the foam to fight fires at all commercial airports. And militaries and airports around the world also came to use the foam.
But environmental concerns about the foam emerged as early as 1974, when a report from one of the U.S. Navy’s research centers fretted over releasing “a large raft of snow-white AFFF floating” into harbors, as was then the practice. Although the precise dangers posed by the foam were unclear — and 3M had assured the Navy that the foam would have no adverse affect on the environment, according to the report — the authors noted that “practically anything undrinkable by humans is unfit to discharge over the side into the sea” and suggested using instead foam made of glycerin and water. Two years later, a 1976 memo about AFFF from another Navy research lab noted that “improvements are desired in the environmental area.” Navy scientists proposed changes to Navy practice, including testing for toxicity. The Navy did not take up all of the suggestions.
Already thousands of gallons of foam were being dumped into the harbors in San Diego and Norfolk, Virginia. A 1978 report by the Naval Ship Research and Development Center authorized the continued release of the foam into the harbors, predicting it would “not be environmentally significant.” It took nearly 20 years, until 1996, for the concerns to revive substantially and even then, no one yet grasped that tiny amounts of the chemicals from the foam could affect people’s immune systems and change their risks for cancer and other diseases. Rather, according to a memo to the Naval Facilities Engineering Service Center, there was a lack of data showing the fluorinated molecules in the foam were biologically safe.
Though they were still vague, the mounting concerns about the environmental effects of AFFF presented naval commanders with an ethical dilemma. Whatever unspecified health and environmental problems the foam might cause down the line, it was already saving lives by preventing catastrophic shipboard fires.
In 2000, the environmental worries suddenly became less abstract — and more public. After decades of providing the firefighting foam to the military, 3M, the Navy’s partner in creating AFFF, announced it would stop making PFOS, the company’s patented surfactant, and, ultimately, the foam.
At an August 2000, meeting at the Pentagon, an EPA staffer who worked on chemical risk explained the research that had led 3M to decide to take its products off the market. She described one study, conducted by both 3M and DuPont, which by that point was making a similar product. In the experiment, monkeys exposed to PFOS had lost weight, developed enlarged livers, and, in some cases, died within three weeks. Because some of the monkeys given the lowest dose of the chemical had died, the researchers were unable to find any safe level of exposure. Citing other research as well, she warned that the continued release of PFOS would pose a “serious concern for potential future risk for humans and wildlife.”
According to an attorney representing the company, “3M generally believes that these chemicals present no harm to the environment or human health at levels they are typically found in the environment. Certainly, 3M sold its AFFF products with instructions regarding their safe use and disposal.”
While 3M’s decision meant that its AFFF made with PFOS would no longer be available, the military continued using formulations of the foam that contained other PFAS surfactants. But less than a year after her first presentation, the EPA staffer spoke again at the Pentagon, where she reiterated the EPA’s concerns about PFOS and took her warnings a step further: The EPA wasn’t just concerned about PFOS, she explained, going on to advise the military brass not to rely on any of this class of chemicals, and recommend a “program to seek, test, and consider long-range alternatives.” In the meantime, the EPA would be studying the risks.
The EPA’s interest in their products presented a choice for the chemical and foam makers: They could, like 3M, stop making the surfactants used in AFFF. Or they could ignore the warnings and stay in a market that, with 3M’s departure, had just gotten considerably more lucrative.
Shortly after the Pentagon meeting raised the possibility that the EPA would scrutinize these other chemicals, the foam and surfactant manufacturers made their decision clear: Not only would they continue to make AFFF and the fluorinated surfactants, they would also create an organization to defend these products. The Fire Fighting Foam Coalition — with DuPont and the chemical company Dynax among its founding members — was soon making presentations to the EPA and various branches of the military. Their messages were reassuring: The chemicals used to replace PFOS were safe for human health and the environment, and AFFF was the only way to safely protect military personnel from fires.
The Fire Fighting Foam Coalition was headed by lobbyist Tom Cortina. Cortina was an old hand at defending chemicals from the EPA, but his newest clients were facing especially daunting troubles.
By 2000, some within the Department of Defense had raised the possibility of replacing AFFF with a foam that didn’t contain chemicals that would persist in humans or the environment. The next year, the country’s most prominent air safety organization, the National Fire Protection Association, held a meeting to discuss the need to abandon AFFF. And in 2002, a consulting company called Hughes Associates gave a presentation to a Federal Aviation Conference that warned that the fluorinated surfactants in AFFF were among the most environmentally persistent substances ever — “impervious to biological and most chemical assault.”
As concerns began to swirl around their products, Cortina, joined by DuPont’s Steven Korzeniowski, pushed back. At conferences, in journals, and in meetings with the military and the EPA, they repeated a key talking point: Only one PFAS chemical, PFOS, had been taken off the market; since their products didn’t contain PFOS, their products were safe.
One of the coalition’s biggest tests came at an October 2003 meeting that was part of the EPA’s investigation of perfluorinated chemicals. The agency was considering whether telomers used in AFFF, as well as the foam itself, should be part of that regulatory investigation. Had the agency concluded that the other surfactants in AFFF posed a significant threat, that step could have led fairly quickly to restrictions — or at least to a voluntary phase-out of the chemicals — as it eventually did with PFOA and PFOS.
But at the meeting, the Fire Fighting Foam Coalition asked the EPA to exempt it from the regulatory process. “The Fire Fighting Foam Coalition strenuously argued that these newer chemicals were safe … and EPA basically bought that,” Rob Bilott, an attorney who was at the meeting, recalled recently. “It was so slick.”
Whatever drove the decision not to include AFFF in its regulatory process, Cortina was clearly pleased about it. “I consider this to be a major victory of the FFFC and the telomer-based AFFF industry,” he wrote in a memo to coalition members that Korzeniowski circulated to his colleagues at DuPont.
It was a major victory. Since then, the Army, Navy, and Air Force have continued to use AFFF across the country and abroad with little involvement from the EPA or pressure to replace its products. Evidence did eventually emerge that the other PFAS surfactants posed some of the very same problems that PFOA did. “Over the years, you see this recognition even in Fire Fighting Coalition newsletters,” said Bilott. “But they never went back and said to EPA, ‘Well maybe you better come back and look at us again.’”
According to Cortina, the Fire Fighting Foam Coalition did submit data about AFFF use to the EPA, which subsequently phased out the eight-carbon chemicals that had been used in the foam. Korzeniowski said that DuPont and the industry group participated in the EPA process and met with the agency to discuss the chemicals in foam. “EPA held many meetings with industry representatives to help them better understand the various chemistries out in the marketplace once 3M stopped long-chain manufacture of PFOA and PFOS in 2002,” Korzeniowski wrote in an email to The Intercept.
In response to questions about the current state of cleanup efforts, the Department of Defense referred The Intercept to the individual service branches. The Army, Navy, and Air Force each provided lists of installations without detailing the number of contaminated sites at each installation, greatly limiting the usefulness of the information.
No one knows how many people are drinking PFAS chemicals as a result of that contamination, in part because some of the investigations of military installations where AFFF was used are still underway. According to the lists provided by the Army, Navy, and Air Force, both PFOS and PFOA have been detected in the drinking water on or near at least 46 military installations in concentrations above the EPA’s lifetime health advisory limit, which is 70 ppt.
Many more people are exposed to the chemicals at levels below that 70 ppt threshold. And, judging from the health-based levels that states have set since the EPA set its level last year, even these lower levels may pose health threats. New Jersey is moving forward with setting 14 ppt as its drinking water standard for PFOA, just one-fifth of the EPA’s number, and recommended 13 ppt for PFOS. Vermont and Minnesota have either set or proposed safety levels for both chemicals that are lower than the EPA’s. And in December, a Michigan state legislator proposed the lowest standard yet for PFAS molecules: 5 ppt. Historically, chemical safety thresholds tend to drop over time as research mounts.
The wide range of safety levels worries Aaron Weed, the town supervisor of Oscoda, Michigan. Although the fact that PFOA and related PFAS chemicals from AFFF used at Wurtsmith Air Force Base had leached into local water was first made public in 2003, Weed first learned about it in 2012. Air Force officials presented news of the contamination “as not that big of a deal,” said Weed. “That was the impression I got, that it was nothing to worry about.”
But soon it became clear that the Air Force had different ideas than Weed about what was worrisome. Last year, after he learned about New Jersey’s proposed safety levels, he brought his concerns to a meeting of the cleanup team for Wurtsmith Base, where Air Force officials were discussing a plume of groundwater that contained 50 ppt PFOA.
“They were talking about 50 ppt as if it wasn’t even there,” said Weed. “So I said: ‘Why are you talking about 50 ppt like it’s almost nothing, when New Jersey says 14 ppt is something?’” A few days later, Weed said he received an email from an Air Force official explaining that he was no longer welcome at cleanup team meetings.
According to spokesperson Mark Kinkade, the Air Force is working closely with the community living near Wurtsmith base and recently established a restoration advisory board “to ensure the community has access to information about our efforts at the installation.” Weed was designated an alternate member of that board.
The other question now dogging those living with contamination from AFFF is how many different chemicals pose dangers. The EPA has set groundwater and drinking water health advisory levels for only two compounds: PFOS and PFOA, the eight-carbon molecules that have been used in nonstick products, as well as fire fighting foam.
The military’s policy of addressing only these two chemicals flows from the EPA’s decision to limit its own actions to PFOS and PFOA. Yet clearly other compounds in AFFF also pose threats. After testing on Whidbey Island had turned up six PFAS chemicals in the water there, Navy personnel arrived at Farnsworth’s house to present and explain the results of the tests on his well. “They told me the only ones I had to worry about was PFOS and PFOA,” Farnsworth said recently. Meanwhile, Swanson, the retired physician, had several of the suspected toxic chemical in recent blood tests, yet he says the Navy never spoke to him about the presence of these other chemicals — or how to get rid of them. “They don’t want to admit that any of these are bad chemicals,” said Swanson.
The military is applying that same approach to remediation as well. Although multiple chemicals are known to have tainted the water at Whidbey and other military installations, the military is only attempting to clean up PFOA and PFOS. “The only ones we have an active response requirement for is those two,” as Maureen Sullivan, deputy assistant secretary of defense for Environmental Safety and Occupational Health, explained to me in a June interview.
The exclusive focus on PFOA and PFOS means that some people who have the broader category of chemicals at considerable levels in their drinking water do not receive clean water from the military. Recognizing that PFOA and PFOS may well have a cumulative effect, the EPA set not just a safety level of 70 ppt for each chemical, but the same cutoff for both combined.
Neal Sims, who lives in the quaint town of Coupeville on Whidbey Island, didn’t receive clean water from the Navy even after tests of his tap water showed he had four PFAS compounds in his water totaling more than 80 ppt. That’s because when it came to the only two recognized dangers, Sim’s water had less than 30 ppt — well under the EPA’s 70 ppt cutoff. But the tests showed that, when the levels of PFHxS, PFHpA, and PFBS were included, “the total was over 74.”
Richard Abraham, an environmental consultant who lives about 20 minutes south of Sims on Whidbey, was also worried about the other PFAS chemicals found in the Coupeville town well, which provides Sims’s water and also serves the local school and hospital. He asked the hospital to install a filter that removes the chemicals.
The hospital denied his request and in an article in the Whidbey News-Times, a hospital board member referred to Abraham as “alarmist” and blamed him for “causing unnecessary chaos.” The mayor of Coupeville told the paper there was no reason to filter the water and said that the chemicals found in the town’s water “do not rise to a level of concern based upon EPA requirements.” In January, the Navy announced its intention to set up a filtration system for the town of Coupeville, according to Navy spokesperson Mike Welding.
But Abraham and Sims were right to be concerned. Regulators in Europe have already taken action on PFHxS. Minnesota set water levels for PFBS and PFBA back in 2011. And a group of scientists cited health and environmental concerns when they recommended limiting use of the entire class of PFAS chemicals, which likely comprises hundreds of different compounds, in 2015. The state of Washington is working on establishing a lifetime health advisory limit for PFAS compounds. According to Navy spokesperson Ben Anderson, “The Navy will promptly respond as appropriate if such limits are established for those chemicals.”
Some at the Navy seem to have anticipated the confusion that would result from singling out two chemicals for response while many other similar, potentially hazardous compounds are clearly also present. A draft version of a March 2016 document on the Navy’s comprehensive strategy around contamination from the perfluorinated compounds in AFFF obtained by The Intercept revealed an interest in limiting the public’s knowledge of the range of contaminants in their water.
“Do we want to mention somewhere in this strategy that our sampling focus will only be on PFOA/PFOS?” Lindsay Nehm, chief of Naval Operations Energy and Environmental Readiness Division, asked in a comment on the document. Nehm went on: “I think this is crucial to ensure that we don’t open the door for sampling to be done of the full suite of PFCs.”
No one knows the exact number of dangerous chemicals that escaped from the foam and made their way into drinking water and people’s bodies, but it is clearly not two. Nor is it three, the number of PFAS chemicals the Navy tested for in some drinking water wells on Whidbey in the first half of 2017, or six, the number the EPA has tested for in drinking water nationwide, or even 14, the number of PFAS chemicals the Navy tested for on the island starting in September 2017.
An analysis of water where the foam was used, which was published last January in the journal Environmental Science and Technology, found 57 classes of PFAS molecules, each of which could contain many individual chemicals. Chris Higgins, a professor of environmental engineering at the Colorado School of Mines and one of the study’s authors, estimated that between 500 and 700 PFAS compounds have been found at sites where the foam has been used, though Higgins put the number of PFAS that are “major components” of the foam much lower, at between 30 and 50.
It is impossible to find and remove all of these chemicals, many of which have only recently been identified. “The manufacturers themselves probably didn’t know exactly what was in them,” said Higgins. In most cases, their dangers to humans also remain mysterious. While some of these compounds may be less toxic than PFOS and PFOA, according to Higgins, “some could be more toxic.”
Further complicating matters is that many of the shorter chain molecules for which the EPA has yet to set drinking water standards — and the military has yet to directly address — appear to be more difficult and more expensive to filter out of water than PFOA or PFOS.
Susan Gordon discovered this the hard way. Until 2016, Gordon spent much of her time on the Venetucci Farm in Colorado Springs growing fruit and vegetables and teaching children about the importance of respecting nature. But testing done in June 2016 by the health department revealed that five PFAS chemicals — PFBS, PFHpA, PFHxS, PFOS, PFOA — had made their way from Peterson Air Force Base into the wells serving the farm and Gordon’s home, which is also on the property.
Although most people have low levels of some PFAS chemicals in their blood, tests revealed that Gordon had five of them, including PFOA and PFOS, at about 10 times the national average, and PFHxS at more than 100 times the national average.
Air Force representatives began dropping off big, plastic containers of water as soon as Gordon’s well tested positive for the chemicals and proposed installing special carbon filters on her wells. Gordon hesitated because the Air Force only offered to pay for the installation of the filter and made it clear that she would have to assume the costs of maintaining it.
“They couldn’t tell me what kind of costs or how often the filter would need to be changed,” Gordon said recently. But Air Force representatives told her they would eventually stop providing bottled water. “And they said, ‘If you don’t sign on now, you’re going to lose this opportunity.’” So Gordon signed up for a filter that was intended to bring the levels of only PFOS and PFOA in Gordon’s water below the EPA’s limit, despite the fact that “the PFHxS is what’s highest in everything that’s tested, including my blood.”
In response to inquiries about the Gordon’s situation, Kinkade the Air Force spokesperson, wrote in an email that “there currently is no advisory or properly promulgated national standard for the other compounds” in her water besides PFOS and PFOA. “Whenever we have found drinking water with PFOS/PFOA levels above the health advisory, the Air Force has moved quickly to provide alternate drinking water supplies.”
Recent research confirms that PFHxS, along with some other shorter chain PFAS molecules, are much harder to remove from water than PFOS and PFOA, and break through filters more quickly. Air Force officials had told Gordon it would be between six months and a year before she needed to replace the filters. Less than four months after they were installed, the PFHxS reappeared in her drinking water. At that rate, Gordon estimates her annual cost for the filters to be more than $4,500 a year. “That’s huge for a nonprofit farm,” said Gordon. “We can’t do that!”
For years, the military has argued that the risks and contamination of using PFAS chemicals were necessary because of their lifesaving value. And though it’s true that in the early years, the AFFF foam might have offered a clear advantage over other options, that’s no longer the case.
The day after 3M announced its decision to pull PFOS off the market in 2000, it deployed a chemist named Ted Schaefer to come up with another way to extinguish fuel fires that didn’t contain PFOS or other environmentally persistent ingredients.
Schaefer, who worked for the Australian division of 3M, had spent much of his career on foams used to put out forest fires. After many months of tinkering with raw materials and testing more than 300 formulations, Schaefer came up with a mix of biodegradable organic surfactants and complex sugars that performed comparably to AFFF. The fluorine-free foam, as it was called, smothered flames in tiny bubbles as opposed to a thin film as AFFF did, but it seemed to put out the burning fuel just as well.
In 2002, the fluorine-free foam matched the time it took for one of 3M’s formulations to put out the flames on a pan of jet fuel in tests carried out on a Royal Air Force Base in Manston, England. Both took 46 seconds — and the fluorine-free version outdid another 3M product, which took 50 seconds to extinguish the fire. All three foams met the 60-second standard for putting out jet fuel fires set by the International Civil Aviation Organization.
“We were ecstatic,” said Schaefer, who made several improvements to the fluorine-free foam before patenting it in 2003. “We thought it would change the world.”
The U.S. Navy invited 3M to send a sample and, in 2004, Schaefer traveled to the Navy’s facility in Chesapeake Bay, Maryland, for the testing. But the Navy required that foams be able to put out fires within 30 seconds. Neither the fluorine-free foam nor all of the PFAS-containing foams met the 30-second standard. At its fastest, the fluorine-free foam put out the fire in 39 seconds. For the PFAS foams, the times ranged between 25 and 36 seconds.
Schaefer had reason to believe that with practice, firefighters could apply the new product more quickly. With each of several tests of the fluorine-free foam, which is somewhat more viscous than AFFF and thus, applied slightly differently, the time to put out the flames decreased. “The firefighter related that he was confident he could get even better results,” Schaefer recalled. But even though the products were close in performance — and Schaefer’s foam had the added benefit of not containing chemicals that were already contaminating drinking water around the world — the Navy made no effort to work further on the fluorine-free foam, according to Schaefer.
“That performance gap could have been closed with effort,” he said. “But I didn’t hear ‘Let’s try to close that gap.’” Instead, the Navy noted the test as a failure and didn’t pursue it further for years. For its part, 3M turned back to researching fluorinated options and, within a few years, shut down its firefighting foam division entirely.
A Navy spokesperson said that the U.S. Department of the Navy “is aware of Mr. Schaeffer’s efforts in the past to produce a fluorine-free AFFF that would meet the MILSPEC requirements. While the DoN remains hopeful that a fluorine-free AFFF will be developed that meets or exceeds our minimum MILSPEC performance requirements, to date none has been brought to our attention. DoN continues to invest and conduct research and development to identify or develop a fluorine-free AFFF that falls within MILSPEC performance requirements.”
Between 2000 and 2004, Schaeffer also had several meetings with the Australian Defense Force, which uses AFFF based on the U.S. military specification. Schaeffer explained his concerns about fluorinated chemicals and described the potential of his new foam to avoid further contamination. But the meetings didn’t go well. “I felt their eyes glaze over,” he said recently. In response to a list of questions from The Intercept, an Australian defense spokesperson said that as a result of an internal report on general environmental issues associated with the use of AFFF, “from 2004 Defence commenced transitioning away from the 3M AFFF products.”
In 2007, a Norwegian company called Solberg bought the patent rights to the fluorine-free foam products from 3M and hired Schaefer to work on them. Like Schaefer, Jan Solberg, the company’s founder, believed the new foam was “the solution” to the massive contamination problems from AFFF that were already being discovered at crash sites, airports, and military bases around the world, as he told me recently.
Solberg also expected that militaries would soon adopt the fluorine-free foam. “I thought we would sell to the military,” said Solberg. “We saw that the U.S. market would be a big potential.”
But the company ran into significant opposition from the makers of AFFF. “The pressure on Solberg has been tremendous,” said Solberg, who retired in 2010 and sold the company in 2011. “We have been attacked by the foam manufacturers and the fluorosurfactant manufacturers, DuPont and Dynax.” Solberg complained that AFFF manufacturers “hired lobbyists to say this foam has never performed on any live fires, which wasn’t true.”
According to Tom Cortina of the Fire Fighting Coalition, the military didn’t adopt the alternative foam because it was inferior to AFFF. “As for fluorine-free foam, it is well known and objective testing has shown that it is significantly less effective than AFFF for extinguishing flammable liquid fires,” Cortina wrote in an email to The Intercept. “Fluorine-free foams are currently unable to meet the requirements of the US military specification.” Dynax did not respond to inquiries for this article.
But nine firefighting professionals interviewed for this story described similar dynamics within the firefighting foam industry, with manufacturers and sellers of AFFF fiercely defending their market by discrediting alternative foams. Even before the U.S. Navy was testing the Solberg foam, the Fire Fighting Foam Coalition attacked the notion that anything could compete with AFFF.
“Aqueous film-forming foams (AFFF) are the most effective agents currently available to fight hydrocarbon fuel fires in military, industrial, and municipal settings,” a newsletter from the industry pronounced in 2005. “This is not an opinion, but a statement of fact that is not disputed by any respected fire protection professional.”
Yet some fire professionals did disagree. In 2002, an international group of more than 100 firefighting experts held the first of five meetings about the foam and the trail of contamination it was leaving around the world. “We laid out a lot of the environmental problems very clearly,” said Roger Klein, a British chemist and firefighting foam expert who helped organize the meetings “and those who laid them out were shouted down by the industry.”
A bitter rift soon developed among fire experts over whether the fluorinated chemicals were worth the environmental and health risks they posed. On one side were Klein, environmental scientists, the makers of fluorine-free foams, and some firefighters, who raised concerns that the chemicals in firefighting foam were both polluting the planet and putting them at particular risk. On the other were the makers of AFFF. Though they represented a narrower slice of the firefighting world, their voices were amplified by a well-funded industry group.
After 2006, when the EPA reached an agreement with chemical manufacturers to phase out the eight-carbon molecules PFOA and PFOS by 2015, the Fire Fighting Foam Coalition began to emphasize the safety of the six-carbon PFAS it would be using to replace them. The replacement chemicals were “not currently being considered for regulation by environmental authorities in the U.S., Europe, or Canada and are expected to be available to serve critical fire protection and life safety applications for the foreseeable future,” as the FFFC’s newsletter announced in 2007.
The industry group was right: The EPA was nowhere near regulating the six-chain molecules. But, as some within the Navy suspected, the lack of regulation didn’t mean the replacement PFAS were necessarily safe. Ronald Sheinson, a chemist at the Naval Research Laboratory, drew his colleagues’ attention to the potential dangers in a 2007 email. “Although they are likely primarily C6 products,” he wrote, “they still have some as yet not completely quantitated hazard properties.”
Sheinson expressed support for investigating alternatives to AFFF and proposed that the military could reserve AFFF for emergencies and use foam that didn’t have persistent toxic chemicals in it for all the other uses.
But without EPA pressure, there was little reason for the military to pursue it. Just after the EPA announced it would not be looking at the PFAS in firefighting foam, Doug Barylski, who worked in the Naval Sea Systems Command, noted in an email to some of his colleagues that his team had “submitted issue papers to look at AFFF alternatives considering it prudent to do some early work.” However, “without any crisis the papers have not been funded.”
Instead, military brass took at least some of their cues from people who had a vested interest in keeping PFAS in wide use. In 2008, after several people within and outside the military expressed concerns about contamination from AFFF, Deputy Undersecretary of Defense Wayne Arny passed on assurances about the safety of the new foam that he had gotten from its manufacturers.
“Over the past several months, my staff has met with a number of chemical industry representatives,” Arny wrote in a 2008 memo to the chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the assistant secretaries of the Air Force, Navy, and Army. “These representatives have assured us that suitable substitutes are being developed.” Arny explained that the Department of Defense wouldn’t be developing risk-management options “since industry is taking appropriate actions.”
Based on those assurances, the U.S. military has set out on the massive effort that is still underway: replacing AFFF with foam that contains slightly tweaked versions of those same chemicals.
The lobbying continues both nationwide and worldwide. According to slides that Korzeniowski, who’s now a private consultant, presented to the Department of Defense’s Materials of Emerging Regulatory Interest Team in July 2016, the “primary engagement points” for the Fire Fighting Foam Coalition and its international counterpart, the FluoroCouncil, include the Department of Defense, the Federal Aviation Administration, the EPA, the European Chemicals Agency, and Navsea, the division of the Navy that oversees the composition of AFFF.
In May 2017, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt met with executives from Chemours, which has taken over DuPont’s considerable fluorosurfactant business. In the negotiations over phasing out PFOA, DuPont asked for “timely review and approvals” of its replacements for that chemical. Chemours continues to sell those replacement chemicals for use in firefighting foam. And one of the items on the agenda of the May meeting held at EPA headquarters was the company’s desire to “protect significant new U.S. investments the company has made in reliance on previous EPA policy decisions.”
Chemours did not respond to a request for comment.
While the dangers of PFAS compounds have become increasingly obvious, many groups and individuals, including the Federal Aviation Administration, the General Accounting Office, at least one member of Congress, and a representative of the Australian military, have asked the Department of Defense about the possibility of switching to fluorine-free foam, often referring specifically to Solberg’s products.
The responses to these inquiries included the circular argument that fluorine-free foams can’t meet the military’s foam specification because the standard requires fluorinated surfactants, which fluorine-free foams purposefully exclude.
Bradley Williams of the Naval Research Laboratory issued a typical explanation in a 2013 letter to Michael Healy, a senior defense force officer in the Australian military. Outrage in Australia has spread over AFFF contamination of more than 100 sites around the country. In his response, Williams explained that the military’s specification “explicitly states that AFFF must contain fluorosurfactants,” going on to note that, in testing done in 2010, Solberg’s fluorine-free foam fell short of the performance standards, coming in at 5 seconds over the 30-second limit for putting out a gasoline fire.
Signed in the midst of growing outrage about foam contamination, the National Defense Authorization Act passed by Congress in November included not just $72 million for the Air Force and Navy to clean up PFOA and PFOS and $7 million for a nationwide study of the health effects of PFAS chemicals, but also a requirement that the military look into foam alternatives.
The law, however, made no mention of the replacements for PFOS and PFOA that are already known to pose dangers to health and the environment. And the military’s specification still requires that the firefighting foam “shall consist of fluorocarbon surfactants.” So by the standards of the law passed a few months ago, an “alternative” foam could contain a PFAS molecule other than PFOS and PFOA, as the replacement foam chosen by the Air Force does.
Still, while the U.S. military has been trading dangerous old compounds for dangerous new ones, others around the world have been making a different shift. Kim Olsen, who directs the fire training academy at Copenhagen Airport, oversaw his airport’s transition to fluorine-free foam in 2009. Olsen, who has worked in aviation for more than 40 years, helped conduct more than 20 tests comparing the toxic foam with foams that don’t contain the fluorinated surfactants. “The testing I’ve done clearly shows there’s no difference,” said Olsen. “They both work.”
Other governments and organizations have come to the same conclusion. On January 30, South Australia became the first state in that country to ban firefighting foams containing all PFAS chemicals — not just PFOS and PFOA. The Norwegian and Danish air forces now use fluorine-free foam, as does the oil and gas sector in the North Sea; countless firefighting brigades around the world; as well as 47 corporations, including 3M, Exxon Mobil, Statoil, and ConocoPhillips; and at least 77 airports, according to a list provided by an Australian firefighting official.
Graeme Day, the fire service compliance manager at Heathrow Airport in the U.K., has no regrets about the switch. Because Day was aware of the bitter battle over foam among fire experts, he conducted extensive public testing of the two types before Heathrow switched to fluorine-free foam in 2012. Day carefully documented the tests and even made sure that they were independently witnessed by representatives of the civil aviation authority.
The chemical vendors had warned Day beforehand that the new foam “would not work and protect passengers and firefighters well enough,” he said. But Day has felt only relief about the decision in the past five years — particularly after a British Airways airbus developed engine problems and caught fire in 2015. The firefighters had used fluorine-free foam to quickly put out the flames. Most importantly, no one was hurt. And for Day, there was an added plus: “zero cleanup costs and zero environmental concerns.”
This article was reported in partnership with The Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute.