On a day when three major protagonists announced a $1.19 billion settlement fund to resolve PFAS-related drinking water claims comes fresh accusations that some companies sought to hinder the public finding out about the toxicity and hazards of so-called forever chemicals.
The settlement proposal announced today by Chemours, DuPont and Corteva is an effort to draw a line under claims relating to PFAS pollution of public water-systems, like the case of the film-forming foams in South Carolina. It’s a preliminary agreement, one the companies hope to formalise in the coming weeks. Chemours has to front 50% of the fund, the rest is to be split between DuPont and Corteva.
But the furore around PFAS is far from over. If anything, it’s ramping up. And it serves as a warning to any company paying lip service to sustainability. The chemical industry is going to have to take on board that any substance they manufacture that persists in the environment is going to be a major issue from now on.
Today’s PFAS agreement coincides with the release of a new analysis into previously undisclosed documents dating back to 1961 by a team from the University of California that suggests DuPont and 3m worked to suppress word about the damage caused by PFAS getting out. It was only in the late 1990s that the dangers were publicly established and these documents only came to light because of the current litigation, according to the study.
“Our review of industry documents shows that companies knew PFAS was “highly toxic when inhaled and moderately toxic when ingested” by 1970, forty years before the public health community. Further, the industry used several strategies that have been shown common to tobacco, pharmaceutical and other industries to influence science and regulation – most notably, suppressing unfavorable research and distorting public discourse,” according to the authors, Nadia Gaber, Lisa Beer, Tracey Woodruff, who published their paper entitled “The Devil They Knew: Chemical Documents Analysis of Industry Influence on PFAS Science” in the Annals of GlobalHealth.
From coatings to solar panels and clean hydrogen, there’s little doubt the noise around PFAS is growing rather than dulling with the passage of time. Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances are still used widely in industry, including in some of the most promising green-energy technologies like fuel-cells and solar panels. Alternatives have been found in some applications, but the performance of PFAS remains unrivalled in areas like oil repellency.
The fall out hasn’t been the same as asbestos litigation, which resulted in bankruptcies, but PFAS has eroded tens of billions of dollars in value from some major industrial groups. While acknowledging mistakes were made, some within the chemical industry still hold doubts about whether the science fully supports the health claims. Today’s situation is a result of a litigious environment coupled with how PFAS shows up in blood and persists in the environment, they feel.