Chemical contamination

Americans owe a lot to chemistry for what it’s brought to medical treatment and the invention of wondrous consumer products.

But not all chemical advances have been entirely beneficial. For example, the addition of phosphates to detergents in the 1940s led to good washes – yes – but also the pollution and spoilage of lakes. In more recent years, the addition of a particular gasoline additive to reduce air pollution – MTBE – led to contaminations of well water.

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Those problems were eventually pretty much reined in by court verdicts, financial settlements, new laws and government regulations.

But chemistry continues to surprise with unintended consequences, lately including a class of chemicals that’s generally called PFAS that have gotten into drinking water. The compounds have been used in the making of such varied products as non-stick cookware and firefighting foam.

Use of PFAS by manufacturers ended more than a decade ago when pollution worries began to mount. But the extent of contamination is still being discovered, even as long-term health effects are still being gauged. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has found that the substance fouls drinking water in 43 states, subjecting millions of people to heightened risks of cancer, infertility and cholesterol problems.

The situation is very much current news in my state of New Hampshire. Here’s some background.

Two months ago, the state government filed suits against PFAS makers and the producers of fire-fighting foam. The actions are unusual because, unlike litigation in other parts of the country that sought (and won) substantial payments to remediate and otherwise clean up specific sites, the New Hampshire suits seek compensation for statewide contamination.

Here’s one compliant. Here’s the other.    No specific dollar figure is named in the suits, but, if they lead to any settlements or court judgments, financial penalties could be big. Several years ago New Hampshire won a court judgment against Exxon-Mobil for contamination of well water by MTBE that approached half-a-billion dollars.

Meanwhile, next week New Hampshire’s Department of Environmental Services will be looking for legislative approval to impose new restrictive limits on PFAS contamination of drinking water.

The makers and users of PFAS say the state is going overboard. Said a spokesman for DuPont, one of the named producers, “We will vigorously defend our record of safety, health and environmental stewardship.”

However these events turn out, one lesson is clear: Americans know little about the long-term health effects of new chemicals that are being put to use every day and, in disturbing fashion, winding up in their water.