Dark Waters, directed by Todd Haynes and starring Mark Ruffalo, has helped popularise the story of PFAS pollution in the US. It focuses on true events in the US town of Parkersburg, West Virginia, where a local factory began making Teflon in the 1950s. Despite the industry allegedly knowing the risks of these compounds, over 1.7 million pounds of PFOA – a particular type of PFAS – were emitted to the environment between 1951 and 2003.
Research suggests that the safety threshold for PFOA in drinking water may be as low as 0.1 parts per trillion. That’s 700 times lower than the safe level that has been cited by the Environmental Protection Agency in the US. Since 1951, over 50,000 Parkersburg residents have been affected by PFAO contamination in their drinking water.
It wasn’t an incompetent small-time outfit that was implicated in the scandal, but the multinational DuPont. The case rolled on through the 1990s and early 2000s, ultimately resulting in a class action lawsuit worth several hundred million dollars. But the toxic influence of PFAS stretches beyond Parkersburg and DuPont. Today, the whole planet is contaminated with them.
For much of my career, I’ve worked as an environmental forensic investigator, identifying sources of pollution and measuring the exposure to humans and wildlife. As scientists, we’re normally reserved in our choice of words, but PFAS could be described as one of the most dangerous groups of pollutants in the world today.
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