The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has identified more than 120,000 places in the United States where people may be exposed to a class of toxic “forever chemicals” associated with various cancers and other health problems. , according to data obtained by the Guardian.
The list of facilities makes it clear that virtually no part of America appears to be free from the potential risk of air and water contamination from chemicals known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS).
Colorado tops the EPA’s list with about 21,400 facilities, followed by 13,000 locations in California and Oklahoma with just under 12,000. Facilities on the list represent dozens of industries. industries, including oil and gas, mining, chemical manufacturing, plastics, waste management and landfill operations. Airports, fire training facilities, and some military-related sites are also included.
The EPA describes its list as “facilities in industries that may handle PFAS.” Most installations are described as “active”, several thousand are listed as “inactive” and many more show no indication of such a status. PFAS are often referred to as “eternal chemicals” because of their longevity in the environment. So even sites that no longer actively release pollutants can still be a problem, according to the EPA.
The tally far exceeds a previous analysis which showed 29,900 industrial sites known or suspected of making or using the toxic chemicals.
People living near these facilities “are certain to be exposed, some at very high levels” to PFAS chemicals, said David Brown, public health toxicologist and former director of environmental epidemiology in the health department. of Connecticut.
Brown said he suspected there were many more sites than even those on the EPA’s list, posing long-term health risks for unsuspecting people who live near them.
“Once in the environment, it hardly ever breaks down,” Brown said of PFAS. “It is such a potent compound in terms of toxicity and it has a tendency to bioaccumulate… It is one of the compounds that persists forever.”
Guardian analysis of the EPA dataset shows that in Colorado, just one county – Weld County – is home to more than 8,000 potential PFAS processing sites, including 7,900 described as oil and gas operations . Oil and gas operations are at the top of the list of industrial sectors that the EPA believes could handle PFAS chemicals, according to the Guardian’s analysis.
In July, a report by Physicians for Social Responsibility presented evidence that oil and gas companies were using PFAS, or substances that can degrade into PFAS, in hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”), a technique used to extract gas. natural or petroleum.
“Impregnate all industrial sectors”
The EPA said in 2019 it was compiling data to create a map of “known or potential sources of PFAS contamination” to help “assess environmental trends in PFAS concentrations” and assist local authorities in monitoring . But no such map has yet been released publicly.
The new data set shows a total of 122,181 separate establishments after adjustments for duplications and errors in the listed locations, and the incorporation and analysis of additional EPA credentials. The list of EPA facilities was provided to the Guardian by the nonprofit Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (Peer), which received it from the EPA via an access to information request. (Peer is currently representing four EPA scientists who have called for a federal investigation into what they claim is an EPA practice of ignoring or covering up the risks of certain dangerous chemicals.)
“It shows how PFAS permeates all industry sectors,” said Peer executive director Tim Whitehouse.
PFAS chemicals are a group of over 5,000 synthetic compounds that have been used by a variety of industries since the 1940s for things such as electronics manufacturing, oil recovery, paints, fire-fighting foams. , cleaning products and non-stick cookware. People can be exposed through drinking water, contaminated food and air, as well as through contact with commercial PFAS products.
The EPA acknowledges that there is “evidence that exposure to PFAS can cause adverse health effects in humans.” But the agency also says there is only “very limited information” on the risks to human health for most chemicals in the PFAS group of chemicals.
EPA officials have started taking action to understand the extent of PFAS use and existing and potential environmental contamination, as independent researchers say their own studies find cause for concern. Last year, for example, scientists from the nonprofit Environmental Task Force released a report concluding that more than 200 million Americans may have PFAS in their drinking water at worrying levels.
The EPA is expected to announce a new “action plan” on Monday to address PFAS issues. The list of facilities handling PFAS is part of the agency’s broader effort to “better understand and reduce the potential risks to human health and the environment caused by PFAS,” said deputy press secretary of EPA, Tim Carroll, at The Guardian.
“The EPA has made treating PFAS a top priority,” Carroll said. “Together, we are identifying flexible and pragmatic approaches that will provide essential protections for public health. “
Linda Birnbaum, former director of the National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences and expert on PFAS, said that the EPA’s compilation of more than 120,000 facilities that could handle PFAS and other recent initiatives show that the The agency takes the problem seriously, but still has work to do. urgent need.
“Unfortunately, where PFAS are used, there is often local contamination,” Birnbaum said. And while the EPA appears to be trying to understand the extent of the exposure problems, progress “seems very slow,” she said.
The American Chemistry Council (ACC) says concerns about PFAS are overblown.
According to the Chemical Industry Organization, major manufacturers have moved away from chemicals related to PFOS and PFOA that research has shown to be dangerous, and other types of PFAS have not been shown to be dangerous. “PFAS are vital” to modern society, according to ACC.
But public health and environmental groups, as well as some members of Congress, say the risks to people from industrial use of PFAS substances are substantial.
Four U.S. lawmakers led by Rosa DeLauro, chair of the House Committee on Appropriations, wrote on October 6 to EPA administrator Michael Regan about their concerns about PFAS contamination of the air and the ‘water from industrial facilities, stating, “For too many American families, this exposure increases their risk of cancer and other serious health problems.”
More than 150 advocacy groups also sent a letter to Regan calling for urgent action to tackle industrial releases of PFAS chemicals, noting that many chemicals “have been linked from very low doses to severe harm to the environment. health “.
Fears and foamy water
One of the sites on the EPA’s list is the Clover Flat landfill in Calistoga, California, a small community in the Napa Valley area that is popular for its vineyards and wineries. The landfill sits on the northern edge of the valley at the top of a rugged mountain range.
Clover Flat has handled household garbage, as well as commercial and industrial waste since the 1960s, but over time the landfill has also become a site for the disposal of wildfire debris.
Although the EPA listing does not specifically confirm that Clover Flat handles PFAS, the community has no doubts about the presence of the toxic chemicals. A May 2020 water sampling report requested by regional water quality control officials showed that PFAS chemicals were present in every sample taken from the groundwater and liquid leachate materials around it. of the landfill.
Almost 5,000 people live within a three-mile radius of the landfill, and many fear that PFAS and other toxins absorbed by the landfill will penetrate deep into the community.
Geoffrey Ellsworth, mayor of the small town of St. Helena in Napa County, said several streams flowed through the landfill property, helping rains and erosion to bring chemical contaminants down to streams and other sources of water. water, some of which is used to irrigate agricultural land. He requested regulatory intervention but was unsuccessful, he told the Guardian.
A small group of Napa Valley residents worked on a documentary film about their concerns about the landfill, highlighting fears that exposure to PFAS and other contaminants could endanger their health.
“The water is sudsy and looks soapy and smells funny,” said Dennis Kelly, 69, who lives on a few acres downstream from Clover Flat. Her dog Scarlett fell ill after wading through the waters flowing from the dump into a creek that runs through her property, Kelly said. And for the past few years, he has suffered from colon and stomach cancer.
Kelly said he was concerned the water was poisonous, and he noticed that the frogs and tadpoles that once inhabited the little cove are now nowhere to be found.
“Pollution is going to be what is killing us all,” Kelly said.