Dark Waters: Who is Drinking Cancer Chemicals?
Dark Waters may be a new story line for some, but it’s a reminder for others of how long we have been hearing an all to familiar news cycle go around and around.
For those of you who don’t know, Dark Waters is a movie featuring Mark Ruffalo, Tim Robbins and Anne Hathaway and although, like any movie, there is a small amount of entertainment and artistic license added in, it is effectively an entirely true story.
It is a story of a lawyer named Robert Bilott, who fought the chemical giant DuPont. DuPont was found to have been dumping by-products of Teflon manufacturing into landfills and rivers in West Virginia, threatening human health, livestock and the environment.
Bilott discovered that for years DuPont knew the health risks, and did not disclose them to the public. Unfortunately, this story is not one of one. It is one of many.
Remember Erin Brockovich and Chromium-VI? That too became a movie. Most of us have heard about what happened in Flint Michigan; less of us have heard of the PCB crisis in West Virginia, and now there is Newark, NJ, happening as we speak.
For decades and decades “we” as humans have slowly begun to realize that stuff being dumped aimlessly and carelessly into our surroundings may be coming back to bite us in the ass.
Meet perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) and its close relative perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), part of a larger family unit of per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFASs).
That’s okay, we can’t pronounce them either…but they are the “stars” of this story and have earned the endearing nickname; Forever Chemicals, because we literally can’t get rid of them!
The most common uses for these chemicals are (or were) non-stick in cookware (Teflon), carpets, some furniture, clothing or packaging for foods. They have properties which, wherever they are applied make those products resistant to staining, grease and water. These chemicals are also present in firefighting foam used at military bases, airfields and your local fire department.
According to the EPA fact sheet on PFASs: they are extremely persistent in the environment primarily because the chemical bond between the carbon and fluorine atoms is extremely strong and stable.
PFOS and PFOA are detected in environmental media and biota in many parts of the world, including oceans and the Arctic, indicating that long-range transport is possible. The wide distribution of perfluoroalkyl substances, such as PFOS, in higher trophic level organisms is strongly suggestive of the potential for bioaccumulation and/or bio-concentration.
Okay, so that goes over our heads a bit too, but let’s make it simple.
So, the EPA is saying PFASs… a completely man made family of chemicals that seem to last “Forever” … have been found in places far from human civilization, such as the Arctic. It’s a tricky little chemical that likes to hang around. There is a concern that living things are consuming or absorbing them faster than they are getting rid of them, resulting in a build up in their bodies, also known as Bioaccumulation. This occurs when an organism absorbs a substance at a rate faster than that at which the substance is lost by processes such as excretion.
So, what about the health concerns of these chemicals? Let’s again quote the EPA… Studies found associations between PFOA exposure and high cholesterol, increased liver enzymes, decreased vaccination response, thyroid disorders, pregnancy-induced hypertension and preeclampsia, and cancer (testicular and kidney).
“But they are regulated then, right?” …I hear you say! The short answer is no. There is no enforceable Maximum Contaminant Level (MCL’s) set for PFOA or PFOS. There is a health advisory, which simply serves as an informal technical guideline as to the levels these chemicals should be; a guideline which is not enforceable.
PFOA and PFOS are not the only chemicals that can cause extreme health problems through bio-accumulation. Arsenic may come to mind. Long term exposure to accumulating arsenic causes health concerns such as cancer, liver problems, damage to the nervous system and cognitive disorientation. It even causes death through multi-system organ failure with high exposure levels. Arsenic can be absorbed by ingesting it as well as breathing it in. Did you know, Arsenic poisoning is most commonly due to drinking contaminated water?
Mercury is another notable chemical, not entirely man made…volcanoes, geothermal springs, geologic deposits, and the ocean can be sources of mercury. But of course, humans have exacerbated the problem. Man-made mercury comes from the fossil fuel industry, coal combustion, waste incineration, industrial waste, and mining are major factors contributing to global mercury contamination. Mercury also “increases” up the food chain…so it is not just bioaccumulation, it is bio-magnification. Bio-magnification is where the concentration of a substance increases in the food chain. For example, algae absorb mercury from the water, then insects eat algae, fish eat insects and we…humans eat fish. The human at the top of the chain will be consuming a magnified amount of mercury compared to the original level found in the water. A study in the Everglades in Florida showed a methyl-mercury magnification of more than 10-million in animals towards the top of the food chain including fish eating birds, otters, alligators, panthers and raccoons.
PCBs - polychlorinated biphenyls - also bio accumulate and bio magnify. PCBs have been banned in most places since the 1970’s, but were commonly used in electrical circuits and capacitors, fluorescent light bulbs (like those used in TV’s) as well as coolants and oils and lubricants for machinery. They bind strongly to soil, and bio-accumulate at an alarming rate in fish and marine animals, and magnify through the food chain at huge levels. They have been linked to liver failure and/or cancer, low birth weight, and developmental delays in humans.
When it was banned in the 70s, it had already contaminated areas around manufacturing facilities, meaning that some communities like Minden, WV are still battling the consequences. Residents there claim 156-people have died from cancer in their small town, where only about 250-people live. They blame PCBs in their soil and groundwater. If they are correct, then the cancer rate there is 62%, nearly double the national average of 38%.
Now to clarify, luckily PCBs and Mercury have long ago been identified as being problematic and dangerous, so over many years, water utilities have managed to significantly decrease the exposure risk in drinking water. They are more commonly found in nature’s food chain, than in your tap water. They can still be present in small amounts and have also turned up in wells/ground water supplies, which in turn can end up in our food or water.
We spoke about the Maximum Contaminant Guidelines and Health Guidelines (HG) associated with these chemicals and contaminants. A Maximum Contaminant Level (MCL) is an enforceable legal limit; a Health Guideline is non-enforceable, simply set as a public health goal.
Arsenic’s Health Guideline is 0.004ppb (parts per billion)
Arsenics's Maximum Contaminant Level is 10ppb
Fifty states and 12,642 utilities are over the health guideline, serving, 107-million people.
In 30 states, 335 utilities serving 488,000 people were over the legal limit.
PCB's Health Guideline is 0.09ppb,
PCB's MCL is 0.5ppb.
Three states, 5 utilities serving 16,056 people were over the health guideline.
Mercury’s Health Guideline is 1.2ppb,
Mercury's MCL is 2ppb.
37 states, 560 utilities, serving 6.6 million people had levels of mercury detected in the water, with 3 states and 4 utilities over the guideline, serving 2,438 people.
Chromium VI (Hexavalent) – the “Erin Brockovich” chemical, has a Health Guideline of 0.02ppb, it has no set MCL.
The national average is .492ppb
Our new friend the “Forever Chemical” - aka PFOS – has a Health Guideline at 1ppt (one part per Trillion), it has no set MCL.
Twenty-six states, 169 utilities serving approximately 10-million people were over the health guide of 1 part per trillion, with 2 utilities in Pawling NY testing off the charts at 270.8ppt … almost 300 times the guideline, serving 2,300 people. They were at the top of the list, but far from alone. The top 10 utilities with the highest amounts all were more than 95ppt.
According to EWG.org, up to 110-million Americans are drinking water contaminated with PFAS.
There is no new moral to this story that we don’t already know. After Robert Bilott’s legal battles with DuPont, as played out in Dark Waters, changes were made to the use of PFOA and PFOS, to try to fix the problem and reduce future damage. But what happens when a company is banned from using a chemical in their manufacturing process? They will just find or create a new one. It may take years for bio-accumulation to occur with the new chemical, potentially years for the accumulation to show signs or adverse effects on the environment or our health. Then it takes years for testing, years to prove the health risk connections, and, after the environment is contaminated and a few loved ones have gotten sick or worse yet died, they will just apologize, get slapped with a mediocre fine, and move on to create a new chemical; a new and potentially carcinogenic chemical.
And are we only caring about health or cancer rates in ourselves? If we can develop cancer and health issues from these contaminants, what happens to wildlife? Plants, insects, small animals and birds? They are way more vulnerable than us and we are not protecting them.
As I write this it makes me sick that these contaminants are building up in our population, but I personally can sleep easy. The reason I blog, research, and story-tell for PUR2o is because I first became a customer. I have the Carbon, the Ion Exchange and the Reverse Osmosis filters in my home, meaning that…should I have any of these contaminants in my incoming tap water…they sure as hell are gone before my family or I take a shower, cook, drink or wash our clothes in water! I sleep easy knowing that I am doing what I can to lower the risks to my family and putting a greater distance between us and the big C-word or other health problems.
My wish is for everyone to have that same feeling instead of wondering. If you are still wondering; visit ewg.org/tapwater/ to discover more about your water, and then ask us for help to get you contaminant free!
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