They’re known as “forever chemicals”: per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAs) manufactured by major U.S. corporations like 3M, Honeywell and DuPont. These companies used PFAs in water-resistant and heat-resistant products, non-stick cookware and firefighting foam in the 1940s and ’50s.
Chemicals that don’t go away
As the nickname suggests, these chemicals do not break down. Instead, they leech into the water supply. Research suggests a link between PFAs and diseases like cancer, liver damage, thyroid disorder and a suppressed immune system. They also seem to affect children, possibly causing infants to be born with low birth weight and accelerated puberty in older children.
Millions of dollars in settlements but no enforceable regulations
In recent years, cities, water utilities and other parties have sued manufacturers to compensate them for the cost of cleaning PFAs out of the water. Last year, 3M, Honeywell and Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics Corp. settled a suit filed by a New York town and residents. The companies agreed to pay $65.25 million, though they continued to deny liability. This is actually a relatively small PFA lawsuit: in 2017, DuPont and Chemours settled thousands of suits for $671 million.
So far, the federal government has not regulated PFAs in groundwater. That would make it a crime to contaminate the water with more than a certain maximum. The Environmental Protection Agency has set a health advisory against consuming water with more than 70 parts per trillion, but that is not a firm, enforceable rule.
As more and more Americans learn that their medical conditions are tied to water contaminated with dangerous levels of PFAs put there by major corporations, they are taking action. Class action litigation can level the playing field between ordinary individuals and powerful businesses.