British Columbia Sues PFAS Manufacturers

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The government oof. British Columbia has filed a class action lawsuit against manufacturers of so-called “forever chemicals,” which it says are involved in widespread contamination of drinking water systems. Those chemicals are often referred to as PFAS, which include perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl, and are used in fire suppression foams, nonstick cookware, waterproof clothing, paint, many personal care products including cosmetics, fast food packaging, and pesticides.

In other words, PFAS chemicals are present in a huge number of consumer products to make them more durable, weatherproof, or stain resistant. They are the embodiment of the phrase “better living through chemistry,” which was once the corporate motto of DuPont. The problem is, they take eons to break down and can embed themselves in our organs. See the graphic above to see some of the health risks associated with these “forever chemicals.” According to the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences in the US, exposure to PFAS products may lead to childhood obesity, weakened immune systems, and certain types of cancer. Because they are so long lasting, they are finding their way into aquifers and then into public drinking water systems.

British Columbia Goes On The Attack Against PFAS Chemicals

British Columbia attorney general Niki Sharma told the CBC (there is no news coverage of this lawsuit outside of Canada so far) the province is the first Canadian jurisdiction to sue makers of PFAS chemicals. The province, which is one of the most progressive in Canada, has filed similar class action lawsuits in the past that targeted tobacco manufacturers in 1998 and opioid makers in 2018 to recover healthcare costs associated with those substances.

Sharma says in a statement that the province is filing the lawsuit to “ensure that companies that created the problem, and profited from these chemicals, pay their fair share.” The lawsuit targets 12 companies that include firms associated with the chemical giants 3M, DuPont, and BASF. It claims the defendants knew that when their products were used as directed, “toxic PFAS chemicals would be released that would contaminate the environment for centuries and would pose significant threats to human health.”

“The defendants did not warn the Canadian public of the dangers posed by their PFAS-containing products or take any steps to modify or remove their products to avoid these harms, Instead, they concealed and affirmatively contradicted the known dangers in public statements and marketing campaigns designed to enrich themselves at the public’s expense,” the lawsuit alleges. The suit was filed Friday in the Supreme Court of British Columbia in Vancouver.

University of British Columbia chemical and biological engineering professor Madjid Mohseni told the Vancouver Sun that PFAS products are “ubiquitous” in daily life and can be found in many consumer products. He said the chemicals contain a carbon and fluorine bond which is one of the strongest known to exist in organic chemistry. The strength of that bond is why they have earned the “forever chemical” nickname. “These carbon-fluorine bonds are extremely resilient and extremely strong, they cannot be broken down easily,” he said. “Once you manufacture these products, they are very difficult to degrade and be removed, so they stay in the environment for years.”

Mohseni said research has linked the chemicals to health problems, including thyroid disease, kidney disease, and cancer. “They make our lives very easy and convenient. Unfortunately, the downside is that they are bringing harm to our environment and also our public health,” he said.

The Politics Of PFAS Pollution

This spring, the Environmental Protection Agency issued new regulations designed to address the issue of PFAS chemicals in US drinking water. Almost immediately the chemical industry filed suit to block the new regulations. Who cares if people get sick and die? There are profits at risk here!

The New York Times reports that a group of chemical and manufacturing groups sued the federal government on June 10, 2024, saying it has exceeded its authority under the Safe Drinking Water Act by requiring municipal water systems to remove all six of the synthetic chemicals grouped under the PFAS label that are present in the tap water of hundreds of millions of Americans. The EPA has said the new standard, put in place in April, will prevent thousands of deaths and reduce tens of thousands of serious illnesses. The American Chemistry Council and National Association of Manufacturers said the EPA rule was “arbitrary, capricious and an abuse of discretion.” The petition was filed in the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia.

In a separate petition, the American Water Works Association and the Association of Metropolitan Water Agencies said the EPA had “significantly underestimated the costs” of complying with the new regulations. Taxpayers would ultimately foot the bill in the form of increased water rates, they said, which is undoubtedly true. Industry groups are famous for foisting off the cost of cleaning up their messes onto the shoulders of someone else. Superfund sites? Let taxpayers pay. Uncapped wells leaking toxins into the groundwater and methane into the atmosphere? Not our problem. Let the taxpayers cover the cost. And on and on it goes, the quasi-criminal game known as free enterprise which allows business to enjoy all the profits, while expecting society to subsidize the cost of disposing of waste products.

In Wisconsin, Republicans in the state legislature are pulling a shameful political stunt. Before releasing funds to address PFAS pollution in that state’s drinking water, they want first to immunize the chemical companies from any financial consequences that might flow from their bad behavior. Wouldn’t you like to be able to escape liability if you poisoned your neighbors well and people got sick and died? Nothing says naked political power like getting your elected officials to immunize you from having to clean up a mess that is lethal to others.

The Takeaway

Convenience is a curse that will be the death knell of humanity. Anyone who has tried to scrape scrambled eggs off the bottom of a cast iron frying pan knows it is more convenient to use nonstick cookware. Anyone who works or plays outdoors appreciates weatherproof clothing. Anyone who has ever been near a raging fire will extol the virtues of flame suppressing foam. PFAS chemicals make our life more convenient, so of course we want more of them.

The same logic applies to fossil fuels, which have probably polluted more wells and aquifers than PFAS chemicals by a wide margin. But it is so convenient to turn the thermostat up on a cold morning and hear the furnace roar into life or touch the gas pedal and feel the car rocket ahead. Why would we ever give up such convenience?

There is a part of modern capitalist theory that says it is unfair to force corporations to pay for the harm they do because they also contribute to our quality of life. That is precisely the kind of thinking that will doom humanity to extinction. I wonder if they have nonstick cookware in heaven?

Thanks to BC native and CleanTechnica reader Martin H. for alerting us to this story.


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Steve Hanley

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new." You can follow him on Substack and LinkedIn but not on Fakebook or any social media platforms controlled by narcissistic yahoos.

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