How would you like a side of liver cancer with those fries? Testicular cancer with your chicken sandwich? Childhood obesity with your kid’s meal?
These were the findings of a 2022 analysis of wrappers performed by Consumer Reports while looking for chemicals called PFASs in packaging for fast food products sold across America.
PFAS is an acronym for Perfluoroalkyl and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances, a family of over 12,000 chemicals that was first discovered in 1938 by a 27-year-old chemist named Roy Plunkett. By combining fluorine with carbon, he invented chemicals that resisted water, oils, grease, and even heat: they seemed both inert and indestructible.
They have since been given the nickname “forever chemicals” because of that very indestructibility: they persist for years, decades, perhaps even centuries in the environment.
The PFAS family of chemicals hit American consumer’s attention in a big way in the middle years of the 20th century when 3M rolled out their non-stick Teflon cookware. Since then, they’ve been used to treat furniture and clothing – to make them water- and stain-resistant, paper and cardboard – to make hot drink cups, food containers, burger wrappers, and waterproof cosmetics.
At first, PFAS’s ability to resist environmental degradation or breakdown by biological processes was celebrated. They seemed inert, and single applications could last for decades. Thus, by the 1970s, the chemicals were pretty much everywhere.
Restaurants and fast food operations no longer needed to use expensive tinfoil or clunky waxed paper for their sandwiches or Styrofoam for their cups: PFAS-treated wrappers and drink containers would keep food hot and fresh for hours without leaking water, mayonnaise, or hot coffee. The chemicals were even made into firefighting foam on the assumption that if firefighters were covered in the stuff it wouldn’t hurt them. Now we know better.
- In 2015, scientists found PFAS exposure lowered the immune response, making people more vulnerable to a plethora of diseases and cancers.
- A 2016 study found they alter hormones in a way that affects the term of pregnancy and may have an impact on male sperm.
- In 2017 researchers discovered the chemicals could provoke childhood obesity and disrupt human hormones.
- A 2018 study found high levels of PFAS chemicals alter human metabolism so dramatically they’re implicated in weight gain and both childhood and adult obesity.
- And, in 2020, research “revealed associations between exposure to specific PFAS and a variety of health effects, including altered immune and thyroid function, liver disease, lipid and insulin dysregulation, kidney disease, adverse reproductive and developmental outcomes, and cancer.”
While DuPont had known since 1961 that the chemicals could cause cancers and liver damage, according to reporting in The New York Times, they hadn’t bothered to inform or protect their own workers.
That led to a massive lawsuit in 2017 that cost the company $670 million: the jury found the chemicals were linked, the Times noted, to “high cholesterol, ulcerative colitis, thyroid disease, testicular cancer, kidney cancer and pregnancy-induced hypertension.”
Mark Ruffalo starred in the brilliant 2019 thriller Dark Waters about real-life lawyer Robert Bilott’s epic battle with DuPont: if you didn’t see it when it was in the theaters, it’s really, really worth watching at home. It’s available on Amazon Prime, YouTube, Hulu, and Showtime.
A two-year study from 2016-2018 found PFAS in 99 percent of the residents of New Jersey they examined. The chemicals have been found in polar bears, in the air we breathe, and are estimated to contaminate well water and municipal water supplies used by over 200 million Americans.
Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden, Denmark and Norway have all announced the first steps toward total bans on PFAS chemicals, but here in the US the corporations that make and use them have been playing cat-and-mouse with regulators for years.
Because the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Citizens United that corporations are persons and money is the same thing as constitutionally protected free speech, the companies that make and use PFAS chemicals have been pouring money into the campaigns of, and wining and dining, Republican members of Congress.
While the chemicals are profitable, disposing of PFAS and waste products containing PFAS can be very expensive because the chemicals are so resistant to the usual chemical- and heat-based methods used to break down toxic wastes.
Thus, repeated Democratic efforts to ban or even regulate the discharge of waste PFAS into the environment repeatedly ran into united Republican filibusters in the Senate.
To get around this, in 2020 Democrats inserted into the must-pass National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) a provision requiring any company discharging over 100 pounds annually to report all discharges to the EPA.
The Trump administration’s anti-science EPA, though, in implementing that law inserted an elegant loophole: the reporting was only necessary if the PFAS concentrations in the waste discharges exceeded 1 percent of the total discharge.
Suddenly, the reports to the EPA vanished. Companies, it turned out, were simply mixing their PFAS waste in with much larger quantities of other nontoxic substances — like water — that could legally be discharged into the air, rivers, and oceans to keep the PFAS concentration below 1 percent.
Using this strategy, virtually unlimited amounts of PFAS chemicals could be cheaply dumped into rivers that supply water to cities downstream, sprayed on land or evaporated into the air, and poured into the oceans without EPA oversight.
The Biden administration and the EPA have been working hard to catch up, but Trump so gutted the EPA — it lost over 700 scientists and administrators in less than a year — that the going is slow.
Meanwhile, congressional Republicans continue to block any legislative efforts to protect the American people from PFAS, so as to maintain the nosebleed profits (pun intended) the chemical industry enjoys.
While Republicans in Congress are almost universally in the pocket of the chemical industry, we can still lobby them as citizens to do something about PFAS chemicals and their impact on us, our children, and our grandchildren.
The Congressional switchboard is 202-224-3121 to reach your member of the House and both your senators.