Michigan. Minnesota. New Jersey. North Carolina. West Virginia. These are just some of the hotspots of water contamination caused by per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, better known as PFAS. Linked to a number of cancers and other illnesses, PFAS chemicals have been used in everything from nonstick cookware to stain-resistant clothing and carpets. Until recently, the substances have gone largely unregulated, exposing millions of Americans to toxic contamination.
PFAS' carbon-fluorine bonds are some of the strongest in organic chemistry. They're so stable, in fact, that PFAS have been widely referred to as "forever chemicals" because of their indestructability, said Carl Cranor, a distinguished professor of philosophy at the University of California, Riverside.
"These chemicals are going to be part of our environment long after people are dead," Cranor said. "They're incredibly stable, and they're are all over the world now; the only place they might not exist is high in the Himalayas in Nepal."
Cranor, whose research focuses on legal and moral philosophy, has spent decades studying PFAS and other environmental contaminants that threaten public health.
He said one type of PFAS called perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFOA — used to make nonstick cookware, among other consumer products — can now be found in the blood samples of up to 99 percent of Americans.
Cranor notes that despite the chemicals' toxicity, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has only just started evaluating the substances. He says the agency is unlikely to adequately protect Americans from exposure in their drinking water in the near future, especially with Trump loyalist Andrew Wheeler in charge.
The EPA's PFAS Action Plan, released in February, details several short-term goals: declaring PFAS hazardous substances, regulating drinking water and initiating cleanups of PFAS-contaminated groundwater sites, and assessing the chemicals' human health effects are just a few.
The plan's announcement is long overdue, Cranor said. Still, he remains skeptical of how much of an impact the federal agency will be able to make under what he described as a "very industry-friendly" presidential administration.
"Will the EPA do something? Probably. But will they do enough? Probably not," he said. "I don't think they'll do anything significant, aside from maybe listing PFAS as a water contaminant under the Safe Drinking Water Act, and as something that shouldn't be dumped into rivers and navigable waters under the Clean Water Act. Given how widespread PFAS are, how well will we be protected?"
Cranor, an expert on toxic torts, also explains the potential liability that companies like Chemours, DowDuPont, and 3M now face as individuals and state and local governments seek to hold the chemical giants accountable for decades of water contamination.
PFOA, also called C8, has been linked to various illnesses and strains of cancer — including testicular, kidney, ovarian, and prostate — since the 1990s, mainly in lawsuits filed against Teflon's manufacturer, DuPont.
But according to Cranor, internal memos reveal that DuPont had been well aware of C8's toxicity to lab animals far earlier, since at least 1961.