n 2002, the French multinational Saint-Gobain boosted production of chemically weatherproofed fabrics that it produced in its Merrimack, New Hampshire, plant. Soon after, serious health problems began hitting residents living near the facility.
The Merrimack Citizens for Clean Water (MCCW) advocacy group says people there suffer from high levels of cancer, cardiovascular issues, autoimmune disorders, kidney disease and developmental disorders. That includes an alarming number of children facing rare and aggressive cancers, said MCCW’s Laurene Allen, who lives in the city of about 30,000 that sits an hour north of Boston.
Residents suspected Teflon and other PFAS used in Sant-Gobain’s fabrics were to blame, and testing appears to confirm that: officials have identified 34 PFAS in concentrations as high as 70,000 parts per trillion (ppt) throughout a 65-mile area around the plant. New Hampshire’s groundwater limit is 12ppt.
MCCW has been pushing for Saint-Gobain to fund a clean-up, but Allen said the state and company’s responses have been inadequate. The situation, she added, amounts to “insanity”.
“Over and over people are asking: ‘Why was this allowed to happen?’ ‘Why does it continue to happen?’” Allen said.
But similar fights are now playing out around America as residents, environmental groups and officials at all levels are confronted with a grim and ever-growing public health crisis fueled by PFAS, known as “forever chemicals” for their immense longevity in the environment.
Throughout 2019 and now in 2020, the staggering scope of the new American health crisis has come sharply into focus. About 700 PFAS-contaminated sites have been identified nationwide, while more than 110 million people may now be drinking contaminated water. More recent testing found high PFAS levels in drinking water in 34 major US cities. Some researchers say nearly every source of surface water in the country is contaminated.
Recent tests revealed dangerous levels in rain, a range of foods and sewage sludge that farmers spread on cropland as fertilizer. It is estimated that PFAS are in 99% of Americans’ blood, and the chemicals have been found in Arctic animals. In short, “it’s nearly impossible to escape contamination”, said David Andrews, senior scientist for the Environmental Working Group. “The more you try to study it, the more you try to understand how widespread this contamination is, the more you realize how the entire globe and all of our drinking water and food systems are contaminated,” he said.