Forever Chemicals: A Legacy of Environmental Racism
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January 19, 2024
Hundreds of household items, from cookware to contact lenses, are made with highly toxic, fluorinated chemicals known as PFAS (Per- and Polyfluorinated Substances). Often referred to as “forever chemicals,” PFAS build up in our bodies and the environment and can take over a thousand years to break down. They are virtually impossible to get rid of once they pollute our watersheds, soil, or air. Thus, it is no surprise that nearly all Americans have PFAS contamination in their blood. Scientists are still studying the lasting impacts of forever chemicals, but exposure has already been linked to cancer, immune system damage, birth defects, and other serious health impacts.
Why do we use these dangerous chemicals?
PFAS were introduced in the 1940’s as a popular solution for water-proof and nonstick coating. DuPont patented one of the most well-known PFAS chemicals in 1946, branded as Teflon. Companies continue to manufacture PFAS into everyday goods like smartphone screens, clothing, food packaging, and even menstrual products. With billions of dollars behind the PFAS industry, regulation has been slow to catch up with its devastating impacts. PFAS contamination is now so widespread that animals on every continent except Antarctica have it in their blood. In the US, studies have found them in at least 45% of public tap water sources.
What is environmental racism?
“Environmental Racism” is a term that was introduced by civil rights leader Dr. Benjamin F. Chavis Jr. in 1987 to describe the systematic siting of polluting facilities in Black, Latinx, Indigenous, Asian American and Pacific Islander, migrant farmworker, and low-income communities. Decades of research shows that people of color are disproportionately exposed to higher levels of pollution compared to their white counterparts.
PFAS pollution is not equally dispersed. Chemical companies follow a playbook of environmental racism to evade regulation and minimize opposition. Like with most pollutants, communities of color, specifically those with Black and Latinx residents, are more likely to be exposed to dangerous levels of PFAS. This is because companies disproportionately construct PFAS manufacturing facilities near watersheds in low-income communities and communities of color. Studies since the 1980’s have shown that race is the leading factor in siting hazardous facilities in the US. Racist policies like redlining, underfunding of public services, and disenfranchisement pave a “path of least resistance” for companies to site their toxic waste. Communities of color are already overburdened with pollution and health hazards. For example, Black Americans are 75% more likely to live in communities with the highest exposure to all categories of pollutants in the US. These same communities are often poorly equipped to deal with the health impacts of PFAS due to healthcare costs, poor transportation infrastructure, and work demands.
Why is PFAS contamination so out of control?
Companies have long-known about the harmful effects of forever chemicals on human health and our environment. Watchdogs have reported extensive industry lobbying campaigns to block over 100 federal bills attempting to regulate PFAS in the past few years. Despite these efforts, the EPA is finally introducing long-overdue PFAS standards to research, restrict, and remediate dangerous contamination. But these are still falling behind the escalating risks of PFAS exposure, especially in communities of color.
PFAS manufacturers have a responsibility to measure, mitigate, and remediate their pollution impacts. Safe alternatives to PFAS are available and companies need to start using them. In 2023, 3M announced that it would end all PFAS production by the end of 2025. Likely driven by a $10 billion settlement in June 2023 for widespread public drinking water contamination, 3M’s actions still fail to remediate disproportionate impacts on communities of color. For other PFAS manufacturers, regulation is coming soon. Our communities deserve strong protections against PFAS contamination that address the root causes of environmental racism.
Jillianne Lyon, Program Director
As part of our Climate + Dignity campaign, IASJ is engaging with chemical manufacturers Dow and Honeywell to address environmental justice concerns related to PFAS and other environmental hazards. To learn more about the campaign, click here.