The chemical industry has spent $61 million fighting efforts to regulate PFAS (Rebecca Trager 2021). Evidence indicates that in recent years the industry has focused on using its resources to defeat proposals that could have made companies pay for the costs of cleaning up the massive contamination left behind by PFAS. More than 60 years ago, DuPont created and began using PFAS to make products in high demand including Teflon, which has once generated $1 billion a year.
Perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are a class of fluorinated chemicals that contains more than 5,000 configurations. PFAS is widely used for its non-stick and water-repellency properties on a range of materials. The problem is that it does not degrade easily, which is why it is also known as the forever chemical. Their persistence and more than several decades of studies present a wave of scientific evidence demonstrating the serious risks to health, drinking water, and the environment of these chemicals. Some of the effects associated with PFAS exposure are weakening of the immune system, cancer, damage to the cardiovascular system, serious effects on the reproductive system, thyroid, and liver.
Large PFAS lawsuits filed in recent years by consumers have been settled before reaching trial. DuPont has paid at least $400 million in chemical-related settlements so far (Morgenson 2020). Erik Olson of the Natural Resources Defense Council shared with The Guardian that the main strategy used by chemical industry lobbyists is like that of tobacco and oil, creating a cloud of doubt over the science that clearly demonstrates the threat to health caused by exposure to PFAS (Rebecca Trager 2021).
In Alaska we are not exempt from being affected by PFAS contamination which affects the United States (US) and the world. The investigative report, Threats to drinking water and public health, the magnitude of the PFAS problem, its consequences of regulatory inaction and recommendations* published by Alaska Community Action on Toxics (ACAT) in 2019 presented serious findings of contamination by PFAS in several areas of Alaska. PFAS has been discovered at more than 100 individual sites in nearly 30 locations since the US Department of Defense and the State of Alaska began investigating PFAS contamination.
Ten communities in Alaska have PFAS in their drinking water at levels considered unsafe by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and the number of communities with contaminated water is likely to increase as more sampling is done. According to Safer States, in 2021 in the US more than 161 legislation pieces were presented to regulate PFAS. For that same year, 33 states introduced legislation to regulate them, and a total of 33 pieces of legislation were adopted in 15 states. Nearly 100 bills to regulate PFAS that began in 2021 continue in 2022. And 22 states that introduced bills in 2021 continue their progress in 2022. It is important to note that in 2018 there were 38 related bills to PFAS, in 2021 there were 123.
In Alaska, we are taking action and asking for support from constituents, leaders, health and environmental allies to reach out to their legislators and demand support for the pieces of legislation in the Senate, SB 121, and in the House of Representatives, HB 171. These bills are a first step to do justice and provide environmental health to thousands of Alaskans whose health is threatened by PFAS contamination.
As decreed by the United Nations, drinking water is a fundamental human right. Thus, it is taught by the ancestral, planetary wisdom of the Alaskan Natives and the indigenous peoples of America, water is life. It is the responsibility of the government and all citizens to protect and conserve this precious element for the well-being of all, especially the most vulnerable and future generations.
Dr. Samarys Seguinot-Medina is Boricua, Director of Environmental Health at ACAT and resident in Anchorage, Alaska.