Life is full of situations where unwanted things stick to or stick into other things. One way to preempt that problem is to find substances that are even stickier; that adhere so tightly to surfaces they keep less sticky or prickly invaders out.
Two examples I’ll bet you know: Teflon, the DuPont chemical coating that keeps your fried egg from sticking to the pan; and Scotchgard, the 3M chemical process that wards off rains and stains from your clothing or upholstered furniture.
The chemicals at the adhesive heart of both Teflon and Scotchgard are called PFAS, and they are found in a lot of products like dental floss, microwave popcorn bags, pizza boxes, rain jackets, medical equipment and a chemical foam used at airports to prevent or put out fires.
PFAS, and there are a lot of ‘em, were developed in the 1940s, and by the 1950s the manufacturers, including DuPont and 3M knew they could have terrible impacts on human health. They kept this a secret from the U.S. government, not to mention consumers for decades. While DuPont and 3M hid the facts, they sold so much of the stuff that PFAS turned up in dozens of products and stuck to the innards of almost everyone who came into contact with them. 99 percent of Americans tested showed PFAS in their blood.
And PFAS persist in the environment, particularly in groundwater, even longer than Teflon sticks to your cookware or most of us stick around in life. And bleeding isn’t the only way humans can spread their PFAS around… the chemicals are passed in breast milk and in feces, both of which have important health implications, for infants and everyone else.
Years of medical research have tied PFAS to increased risks of testicular or kidney cancer, liver damage, high blood pressure, increased cholesterol levels, and – most recently, and most important currently – suppressed vaccine response. A recent CDC report suggested PFAS could increase both the risk of getting COVID-19 and increase the seriousness of Coronavirus infections.
No wonder, a brief consult with Dr. Google turned up breaking news of PFAS legislation, litigation and contamination in the states of New York, Maine, New Hampshire, Michigan, North Carolina, Colorado, Washington and my home state of New Mexico, which is now part of a multi-state coalition suing DuPont, a related company called Chemours and 3M for damages caused by the decades of marketing a substance they knew could hurt human health.
If the chem-companies are the source of PFAS, the biggest national distributor may have been the U.S. military, particularly the Air Force, which depended on PFAS chemical foams to fight fires at their bases.
Laura Paskus is an environmental reporter with long experience in New Mexico and the Southwest. She currently files regular reports for New Mexico Public Television’s New Mexico in Focus and the Santa Fe Reporter. Paskus ran the Environmental Project of the New Mexico Political Report and in September, the University of New Mexico Press will release her book, At the Precipice: New Mexico’s Changing Climate. She continues to report for New Mexico In Depth, and her work has also appeared in Al Jazeera America, Ms. Magazine, Indian Country Today, The Progressive, Columbia Journalism Review, and High Country News, where she also served as Assistant Editor.