The PFAS Contamination Crisis

December 12, 2019

A Story Perfect for the Movies

The family of chemicals known as PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances) has about 1,500 different members that are in manufactured products and substances that touch almost every aspect of our lives. PFAS bioaccumulates, causing serious concerns raised by public health advocates, consumer groups and environmentalists. Animals that ingest tainted feed or water can accumulate PFAS in their tissue and PFSA has also been found in eggs.

Used since the 1940s, they are found in all types of food packaging, stain-resistant household materials and furnishings, sprayable stain protectors, non-stick cookware, water repellent gear, aerospace, medical, and automotive devices and applications. They are a key ingredient in firefighting foams, waxes and many other industrial applications. PFAS are remarkably durable and mobile. Once released the chemicals move into and persist in the soil, water and the biological organisms in which they come into contact. What PFAS contamination means for animal and human health remains unclear.

According to the FDA, “the science surrounding potential health effects of PFAS is developing” but the “current evidence suggests that the bioaccumulation of certain PFAS may cause serious health conditions” (emphasis added). This kind of uncertainty can lead to profound fears for consumers and disaster in the marketplace. A 4,000-head New Mexico dairy farmer, whose operation is near an Air Force base where PFAS firefighting foam was used for decades, is preparing to cull and dispose of his entire herd and is dumping the farm’s milk due to PFAS in the farm’s drinking water.  The milk and cows are unsellable, as are any crops grown in his contaminated soil. The farmer is suing the firefighting foam manufacturers and the Department of Defense for damages.

Congress sought to address this general PFAS matter in 2019, with about 20 bills being introduced, but the issue is proving too controversial, with too many unknowns (including the potential costs), for legislators to work out an acceptable deal. One of the key questions is how to treat PFAS-contaminated products and waste materials when released into the environment; are they toxic substances or pollutants that merit Superfund treatment?

A new movie, “Dark Waters”, was released this fall into this combustible situation with considerable success (currently 6th in US box office receipts).  The movie stars Mark Ruffalo and tells a story about an industry lawyer who decides to take on Dupont, one of PFAS’ first and biggest manufacturers, after 170 dairy cows were said to have died from drinking highly PFAS contaminated water.

UEP will continue to monitor these developments and assist the U.S. egg industry in responding appropriately.