“Forever Chemicals”: The Lasting Impact of PFAS Chemicals on Municipalities

Municipality worker checking PFAS levels

Synthetic chemicals used in manufacturing, known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), pose a growing public health crisis. In the past decade, the specific nature of their impact has begun to come to light. Usage across a vast range of products and materials for decades has resulted in significant contamination, creating a complex challenge for municipalities trying to keep their residents safe. While experts continue to learn more about a multitude of consequences and best practices for mitigation and prevention, it is crucial that leaders in your organization become knowledgeable, promote awareness, and develop a formal risk management plan. 

When Did the Use of PFAS Chemicals Begin?

Before the advent of synthetic chemicals, manufacturers depended on natural materials, like glass, ceramics and metals, to create products that could withstand high temperatures and corrosive environments. To finish products, natural substances, like wax, tar and oils, were applied for waterproofing, adhesion, elasticity and durability.

An early plastic that could create cheaper imitations of expensive materials, called celluloid, was invented in 1869. This sparked experimentation that paved the way for the development of synthetic chemicals to further decrease costs by replacing not only the material of the product itself but also the finishing applications. 

The use of PFAS chemicals began in the 1930s and became the industry norm in the 1950s. One of the first applications was to create aqueous film-forming foam (AFFF), which was used by fire departments to combat flammable liquid fires by allowing a vapor barrier to form. 

A Closer Look at PFAS Chemicals 

PFAS are a group of over 15,000 chemicals that share the defining characteristic of containing a carbon-fluorine bond, a combination of linked atoms found in their molecules that is the strongest chain in organic chemistry. This characteristic allows manufacturers to create coatings and products that repel stains, oil, grease, heat, water and more. These substances are found in a wide range of consumer products, including cleaning formulas, cookware, fabrics, paper, personal care items and textiles.

In addition to their superior strength and widespread usage, PFAS have garnered the nickname “forever chemicals” due to their exceptionally long half-life and bioaccumulation properties. Some PFAS can remain in the environment for hundreds or even thousands of years and can build up in the tissues of living organisms.

Studies have found the widespread presence of PFAS in the blood and urine of human patients, with statistics citing impacts on up to 97% of the human population. Health effects depend on the level of exposure, with links to liver damage, thyroid disease, asthma, fertility issues, immune system changes, increased cholesterol, development effects and more. However, not all effects and their specific nature have been determined. For example, while exposure has been linked to certain cancer risks, a causal relationship has not been determined. 

Understanding the Impact of PFAS

In the 1950s, the first evidence of the toxicity and health risks related to PFAS was discovered by chemical companies. Over the next 30-40 years, various studies detected PFAS in the blood of workers in certain occupations and then in the general population. However, regulatory bodies, like the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), did not take significant action until the 2010s, prompting some companies to begin phasing out certain PFAS chemicals.

In the 2020s, efforts from the EPA under the Biden-Harris Administration to respond to the PFAS crisis have significantly increased with a 2021-2024 strategic plan that includes new standards, rules, funding aid, research and education efforts. Some manufacturers have voluntarily phased them out. However, PFAS is still used in some applications until viable alternatives are developed.

The Potential Health Effects of PFAS and the Impact on Municipalities 

The problem with PFAS for humans is contamination. Public health risks stem from how chemicals seep into our environmental infrastructure. PFAS are water-soluble, meaning they dissolve easily in soil, and they migrate quickly through groundwater. Below are the primary challenges that municipalities face:

  1. Drinking water: PFAS has entered drinking water supplies through manufacturing sites, waste treatment plants and products, like AFFF foam. The EPA’s National Drinking Water Standard, which was implemented on April 10, 2024, is the first national, legally enforceable drinking water standard aimed at protecting communities from PFAS.
  2. Landfills: Landfills are the final stop for a variety of liquid and solid human waste across residential, commercial and industrial sectors. As natural precipitation or applied water is introduced, it produces a toxic waste, called leachate, which can pollute the surrounding environment.  
  3. Wastewater Treatment Plants: The strength of the PFAS chemical bonds enables them to resist traditional treatment, meaning new methods are required. The EPA has introduced new regulations for treatment and invested in research and development of new approaches. Some of these, like high-pressure membrane systems or nanofiltration, for example, are already available.  
  4. Airports: Historically, airports have relied on AFFF for aircraft fire suppression because it is very effective in battling fires involving jet fuel. This has led to contamination in surrounding soil, surface water and groundwater. The EPA has encouraged a transition to fluorine-free foams (F3), but no enforcement measure has been introduced. This is intended to give airports the benefit of the doubt that they were acting in good faith when using AFFF and to encourage voluntary compliance.  

These infrastructure problems have created several serious administrative issues that municipalities must be prepared to face:

  1. Litigation: The widespread usage of PFAS over a 50+ year period affecting nearly the entire population has already created a flurry of legal activity, including class action lawsuits. Claims have included personal injury, diminished property value, medical monitoring, remediation costs, consumer protection, failure to disclose material information, and more. In today’s increasingly litigious world, social inflation and nuclear verdicts play a role in determining the outcomes of specific cases. Settlements have ranged from millions up to $4 billion.
  2. Insurance: The already extensive and increasing litigation noted above has had a serious effect on carriers subject to a variety of claims and policyholders looking for coverage, creating conflicts over whether claims are legitimate or certain exclusions apply. Due to the seemingly ubiquitous and unknown nature of the PFAS threat, there is a conflict between policyholders turning to their general liability policies to cover claims and carriers relying on existing exclusions, like pollution, and developing new PFAS-specific exclusions.
  3. Regulatory compliance: The EPA will continue to act as studies increase and more is learned about the dangers of PFAS. Municipalities must remain vigilant in keeping up with new standards, regulations and rules, both internally and in educating their local businesses to remain in compliance.
  4. Financial stress: Although part of the EPA’s strategic plan includes $1 billion designated as part of President Biden’s Investing in America agenda to help states and territories respond to PFAS, building new infrastructure and implementing new technologies can be a burden on a municipal budget. 

What Your Municipality Can Do 

There are some practical tips that your municipality can put into action to start responding to PFAS contamination now. Some of these can also help your municipality comply with new EPA regulations. Remember, it’s always best to formalize your approach in writing and then implement it as a component of your overall risk management plan. Below are the tips your municipality should consider:

  1. Monitoring and reporting: Collect data on PFAS discharges and develop protocols to reduce concentrations in local infrastructure.
  2. Codes: Develop new standards and regulations to enforce compliance from local businesses and organizations.
  3. Public Education: Formalize programs to increase the local population’s knowledge about awareness, health risks and mitigation/prevention efforts. Consider creating a guide or toolkit that can be easily distributed.
  4. Improvements: Designate funds or take steps to budget for improvements to infrastructure or installing new technologies.
  5. Funding: Designate representatives to take full advantage of Investing in America and look for alternative sources, including donations and fundraisers.
  6. Professional Counsel: Seek the advice of legal and insurance professionals to help ensure that your municipality is taking all possible steps to secure the best possible coverage in the face of a rapidly changing legal landscape.
  7. Partnerships: Establish new relationships or strengthen existing relationships with neighboring municipalities, government agencies, nonprofits, local businesses and other entities to share resources and knowledge. 

The PFAS Crisis Going Forward

The PFAS crisis cannot be underestimated. It is an emerging issue that is on the same scale as the black lung and asbestos epidemics with the potential to be even worse. It is important to remember that EPA researchers and partner agencies are still determining how to best detect and measure levels of contamination, how much human exposure exists, how harmful the chemicals are to people and the environment, and how to manage and dispose of the chemicals. These uncertainties only increase the importance of your municipality taking a proactive and informed approach to managing the threat of PFAS contamination.

For additional information on PFAS, click on the below pamphlet, which was developed in collaboration with Claros Technologies, an organization that offers analytical and destruction services to help protect against PFAS.

View Pamphlet

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