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Researchers talk solutions for man-made 'forever chemicals' sickening people across the nation

A pumpjack in a field in front of snow-capped mountains
WildEarth Guardians
A recent analysis of an EPA database revealed that Colorado has about 21,000 industrial sites that "may be handling" PFAS, more than any other state, and the majority of those sites are associated with the oil and gas industry.

Congressional lawmakers helda hearing Tuesday on PFAS, a pervasive group of man-made chemicals known to cause illnesses like kidney cancer and liver disease and damage immune systems in children.

PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, don’t easily react to things like water and fire, which is why they’ve grown in use since they were first manufactured in the 1940s. They’re great for non-stick pans, waterproof outdoor gear and firefighting foam. But their durability also means they hang around in our water, our food and our bodies.

Research showstrace amounts are already inside most people in the U.S., if not all of them. A recent analysis of an EPA database revealed that Colorado has about 21,000 industrial sites that "may be handling" PFAS, more than any other state.

Peter Jaffé is an environmental engineering professor at Princeton University. He told lawmakers one challenge is simply understanding how different PFAS chemicals operate.

“There are over 4,700 PFAS compounds that have been synthesized, and the number is growing,” he said. “The large number of PFAS and the wide range of properties provide a unique challenge for conducting research on PFAS and regulating them.”

Panelists said we don’t even know how to monitor all PFAS chemicals yet, not to mention what they all do.

“We are systematically underestimating these compounds,” said Elsie Sunderland, an environmental chemistry professor at Harvard. “Industry is continuously introducing new ones into our product stream. Standard methods endorsed by EPA and NISS currently do not detect most of the compounds.”

All agree we need solutions soon. Rep. Melanie Stansbury of New Mexico noted that PFAS chemicals from firefighting foam have contaminated groundwater and affected dairy farmers.

Thousands of gallons of milk have been dumped and people’s livelihoods have been destroyed by this contamination,” she said.

Some states already have drinking water standards for PFAS chemicals (like Michigan and New Jersey), but they only measure certain types.

Researchers on the panel called for better identification of PFAS sources, better research on how the chemicals are getting into our bodies (including through foods and packaging), and how to best clean it up.

Amy Dindal of the Battelle Memorial Institute, a research and development organization, told lawmakers that the Ohio-based nonprofit has developed a technology that they say destroys PFAS in water (aptly called “PFAS Annihilator”) and is now working with federal agencies to test it.

“We are ready to scale and deploy PFAS Annihilator,” said Dindal, Battelle's director of environmental research and development, who asked lawmakers to approve more pilot-scale field demonstrations.

Dindal says affordable technology will be important given the wide-spread nature of this problem. They are still working on methods to clean solids like dirt or replace PFAS in products like firefighting foam.

The EPA released a roadmap to taking action on PFAS in October, though lawmakers in the joint committee hearing Tuesday asked what else they can do to create efficiencies in identifying and dealing with this dangerous class of chemicals.

The answer was straight-forward: fund more PFAS research in all sectors, provide more testing grounds for that research and, when possible, hold polluters accountable.

There have been efforts to address PFAS contamination in the Mountain West, including sampling and take-back programs. But the efforts are limited as science, itself, tries to catch up.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Nevada Public Radio, Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Madelyn Beck was Boise State Public Radio's regional reporter with the Mountain West News Bureau.

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