An airman adjusts an aqueous film-forming foam sprinkler. The firefighting foam historically contained high levels of toxic PFAS chemicals, which has caused widespread water contamination. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Kristopher S. Haley)
An airman adjusts an aqueous film-forming foam sprinkler. The firefighting foam historically contained high levels of toxic PFAS chemicals, which has caused widespread water contamination. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Kristopher S. Haley)

The D.C. attorney general sued more than 20 companies over allegations of toxic contamination July 18, joining more than half of U.S. states in an effort to hold the producers of “forever chemicals” accountable for widespread pollution issues. 

The complaint filed by Attorney General Brian Schwalb alleges that 3M, DuPont and other major chemical companies produced and sold a fire-fighting foam that contains chemicals they knew could cause health harms. Tests have found measurable traces of those man-made chemicals—commonly known as PFAS, an abbreviation for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances—in D.C.’s drinking water and in the Potomac River, according to the complaint. 

“The people of the District have a right to use their public resources, here being the rivers and streams, the fish and the wildlife,” Assistant Attorney General Wesley Rosenfeld said. “If there’s a toxic chemical that’s impacting the public’s right to use those resources, that’s a harm to the public.” 

The suit aims to make chemical companies pay for prior and future costs of monitoring—and, if necessary, treating—the District’s water for PFAS. And D.C. is far from alone in seeking that compensation; at least 27 states, including Maryland, have filed similar suits. 

Last month, 3M announced it will pay more than $10 billion over 13 years to settle lawsuits over contamination in many U.S. public drinking water systems. The money will go to water providers across the country—including, potentially, DC Water. 

What Are PFAS Chemicals?

PFAS are referred to as ‘forever chemicals’ because they basically never break down; instead, they stick around in the environment—and in our bloodstream. A 2015 CDC study from 2015 found PFAS in the blood of 97% of Americans, though that number may have declined somewhat since certain types of the chemicals were phased out. 

The category of PFAS includes thousands of individual chemicals, which makes them difficult to study comprehensively. The chemicals have useful properties for making non-stick and stain- or water-resistant products. In addition to the firefighting foam that anchors D.C.’s lawsuit, tons of everyday items use PFAS for those purposes. That includes hygiene and beauty products, cookware, food wrappers and clothing

“We are exposed to PFAS in air, water and soil, and it’s been so widely used for decades that we’re finding it in many, many places,” said Dr. Kimberly Jones, associate provost and  professor of civil and environmental engineering at Howard University. “We know now that it can cause some adverse health effects, but we’re still studying it.”

Those adverse health effects can include a wide range of impacts, such as: 

  • Issues with pregnancy,
  • Developmental defects or delays in infants and children,
  • Higher cholesterol levels,
  • Liver damage,
  • Reduced immune response, and
  • Increased risks for prostate, kidney and testicular cancers.

Chemical Companies Understood the Harms Decades Ago

3M first began producing PFAS in the 1940s. By the 1950s, the company’s own lab tests had shown that the chemicals accumulated in the blood of mice, and in 1963, 3M produced a technical manual that warned about the chemicals’ toxicity, according to the complaint.

The filing goes on to say that the next year, employees making Teflon at a DuPont factory got sick after switching to a more enclosed workspace. They “experienced chills, fever, difficulty breathing, and a tightness in the chest—symptoms referred to variously as ‘polymer-fume fever,’ ‘Teflon flu,’ or simply, ‘the shakes,’” reads the complaint. 

Both 3M and DuPont conducted decades of research that demonstrated that the PFAS chemicals used in their firefighting foam never degraded in the environment and posed health risks to humans. Not until 1998 did 3M submit a report to the Environmental Protection Agency about it, and even then, their submission downplayed the risks, the complaint alleges. 

The District’s lawsuit, like many of the other suits filed by other state attorneys general, argues that chemical companies intentionally concealed the health harms of their products from both the government and the public. 

“They hid the impacts of the chemical that they made, for profit,” said Rosenfeld, one of the lawyers from the attorney general’s office representing D.C. in the matter. 

The $10 billion settlement agreement that 3M reached with U.S. public water providers last month does not include an admission of liability, the company said. 

“As the science and technology of PFAS, societal and regulatory expectations, and our expectations of ourselves have evolved, so has how we manage PFAS,” 3M spokesman Grant Thompson said in an emailed statement. “3M will continue to address PFAS litigation by defending itself in court or through negotiated resolutions, all as appropriate.”

The District also alleges that DuPont “fraudulently transferr[ed] assets to avoid having to pay for

the harms they have caused and continue to cause.” The company, originally known as “E.I. du Pont de Nemours & Company,” has spun off a number of its chemical-producing operations into separate entities. In the complaint, five separate companies, all with different names, are collectively referred to as “DuPont.” 

In a statement, DuPont spokesperson Daniel Turner said: “In 2019, DuPont de Nemours was established as a new multi-industrial specialty products company. DuPont de Nemours has never manufactured PFOA, PFOS or firefighting foam. While we don’t comment on litigation matters, we believe this complaint is without merit, and we look forward to vigorously defending our record of safety, health and environmental stewardship.”

The District’s Water and PFAS Contamination

D.C.’s lawsuit echoes many other suits filed across the country by focusing on aqueous film-forming foam, or AFFF. Historically, the foam contained PFOA and PFOS, two of the most toxic chemicals that fall under the PFAS umbrella—both of which have been discontinued in the U.S. and Europe. Because these chemicals never break down, AFFF often ends up in waterways and has become a major source of contamination. 

AFFF is used a lot on military bases and at airports, and the complaint points out that there are several of these in the Potomac Basin upstream of where D.C. gets its drinking water. The District’s testing found PFAS in every sample taken in the Potomac River, including at sites near where it joins with the Anacostia, according to the complaint. 

“The Potomac Basin is huge,” Jones said. “If there [is] PFAS contamination anywhere in that basin, it could potentially affect D.C.” 

Within the District, hotspots for AFFF include Reagan National Airport and Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling. Tests conducted directly downstream from DCA showed up to a 600% increase in PFOA compared to points directly upstream of the airport, the complaint notes. 

There is some good news, though. In March, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency released its proposed regulations for PFAS. The agency has yet to finalize the rule, but based on the proposal, the detected levels of PFOA and PFOS in the District’s drinking water would meet the standards if they were in effect. That’s true in both DC Water’s tests and testing conducted by the nonprofit Environmental Working Group

“So far, I haven’t seen anything that would indicate that residents in D.C. should be very alarmed with PFAS [in the water],” Jones said. “I just don’t know yet because this is still so new… I don’t want to say ‘oh, we don’t have anything to worry about,’ because we are actively monitoring and testing.”

How to Limit PFAS Exposure for Yourself and Your Family

As with many toxic hazards, PFAS exposure does not impact everyone equally. In the District, we don’t have major manufacturing operations for PFAS chemicals or other acute risks, but exposure to everyday products can also raise environmental justice issues. 

“Low-income households [and] households in communities with a higher percentage of people of color are more likely to have food insecurity—they may have less access to fresh food,” Jones said. “When we think about the packages that fast food comes in, they tend to be coated in some of those non-stick materials. And so if you eat a lot of that food, you’re more likely to have a higher exposure to PFAS, versus if you go to a grocery store.”

Still, it’s possible to reduce the risk if you know what to look for. No single product is likely to cause a danger during a single use—the problem comes from cumulative exposure from many products over time. When possible, it’s a good idea to: 

  • Limit how often you eat out of paper or cardboard packaging (microwave popcorn is one major offender, Jones said), 
  • Steer clear of cosmetics or hygiene products containing ingredients starting with “perfluoro” or “fluoro,”
  • Avoid non-stick pans and other cookware, and
  • Look for “PFAS-free” labels on waterproof or stain-resistant fabrics (this can include carpets, outerwear, athletic clothes and even school uniforms). 

Jones sees increasing awareness of PFAS risks and providing better access to information as a vital step toward solving the problem, especially since ‘forever chemicals’ make it into so many common products. She hopes the lawsuits filed in the District and around the country will raise the PFAS issue’s profile, and inject new funding into monitoring and treatment efforts. 

“I’m not a huge fan of [filing] a lawsuit just to have a lawsuit, but if the goal is to bring attention to something and get resources to help the people affected by this, then I think it’s useful,” she said. “I think we should take every opportunity to educate the public about their potential PFAS exposure, and this might help to do it.”

Kayla Benjamin covers climate change & environmental justice for the Informer as a full-time reporter through the Report for America program. Prior to her time here, she worked at Washingtonian Magazine...

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