WASHINGTON — What did leading chemical corporations know about the health risks of PFAS, and when did they know it?
Members of Congress sought an answer to that question this week at a hearing on widespread public exposure to per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), a dangerous class of chemicals that’s ubiquitous in North Carolina and other states. One lawmaker described PFAS as “the DDT of our era.”
California Rep. Harley Rouda, chairman of the U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Reform Environment Subcommittee, opened the hearing by accusing companies of withholding information from the public.
DuPont and other companies have long known about the negative health effects of PFAS, which are used in everyday products such as microwave popcorn bags and nonstick pans, Rouda said. But they have suppressed the science – at great cost to public health – for their own profit, he alleged.
“These companies have evaded responsibility for far too long already, and we’re finally going to start holding them accountable,” Rouda said.
Witnesses – including affected individuals, scientists and government officials from North Carolina and other states – echoed those charges.
DuPont and its spinoff company, Chemours, have “mastered the art of deception,” said Emily Donovan, co-founder of Clean Cape Fear, a North Carolina advocacy group.
In a letter to the subcommittee, the group alleged that DuPont and Chemours officials “knew for decades about the adverse health effects associated with these dangerous compounds, yet they continued to allow their discharge into the environment during their production and use.” Air emissions have contaminated hundreds of local private wells near the plant, the letter continues – “forcing residents to live on bottled water and fear.”
PFAS – linked to cancer, decreased fertility, and other health problems – have been found in high levels in the Cape Fear River and other nearby waters. The Cape Fear River is the primary source of drinking water for more than 250,000 people in the region.
North Carolina has the third highest rate of exposure to PFAS in the nation, according to Jamie DeWitt, associate professor of toxicology at East Carolina University.
PFAS’ health risks have long been known, DeWitt told lawmakers Wednesday. She cited toxicity studies conducted in the late 1970s, which were not part of the published literature of the time.
Glenn Evers, an ex-DuPont chemist-turned-whistleblower charged his former company with marketing noncompliant toxic chemicals for food packaging products to “fill the profit void.”
No witnesses represented DuPont or other chemical corporations at the hearing.
3M is slated to testify at another subcommittee hearing on PFAS in September, and Rouda said he hoped DuPont officials would appear as well.
DuPont issued a statement saying that the newly independent company is “working closely with Congress and regulators” and “has limited information on the historical events discussed at the hearing.”
‘Human guinea pigs’
Donovan said residents near Chemours’ Fayetteville plant are showing signs of diseases associated with PFAS, also known as “forever chemicals” because of their persistence in the environment. We’re “human guinea pigs,” she said.
Recently released court documents charge that DuPont could have stopped discharging PFAS from its Fayetteville plant, but shoved that task onto Chemours, its spinoff company, to avoid financial and legal responsibility.
Chemours’ Fayetteville plant was ordered to discontinue direct discharge into surface waters and is working to trap air emissions, but PFAS compounds are still detected in river and tap water, according to Clean Cape Fear.
Environmental and public health advocates want the federal government to classify PFAS as a class of highly toxic chemicals, regulate their use, limit their presence in drinking water and shoulder clean up costs. They also want corporations to prove compounds are safe before they discharge them into the environment.
Federal lawmakers from both parties are responding – a rare event in an era of extreme partisanship.
Rep. James Comer of Kentucky, the subcommittee’s top Republican, said he is committed to working toward evidence-based solutions to address the issue. “We all want clean drinking water” regardless of our ideology, he said.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency unveiled a public health “action plan” earlier this year, but critics say it doesn’t go far enough.
In June, the U.S. Senate passed legislation that would monitor PFAS contamination, eliminate a major source of it, require manufacturers to report PFAS discharge, and more, according to the Environmental Working Group. The legislation was passed as a series of amendments to the National Defense Authorization Act.
In July, the House passed its own amendments to its version of the defense bill. Differences between the House and Senate bills must be hammered out by members of a conference committee and signed by the president before the legislation can become law.
The White House threatened to veto the bill, in part over objections to certain PFAS provisions.
The new head of the Department of Defense, Mark Esper, this week established a task force to respond to PFAS on military bases.
Lawmakers who have led the charge to crack down on PFAS said they’re encouraged by the development of the task force, but plan to continue to demand urgent action.
“PFAS contamination exposure and contamination needs to be taken seriously and must be addressed,” said Sen. Gary Peters (D-Mich.) in a statement. “I look forward to reviewing the task force’s findings, but in the meantime, I’ll continue pressing for additional actions the Department can take.”
Allison Stevens is a reporter for the States Newsroom Network of which NC Policy Watch is a member.