Why PFAS are so impervious, and who is most at risk from the forever chemicals

The new infrastructure law contains $10 billion for cleaning up drinking water that has been contaminated by a specific group of man-made chemicals. But problems with "forever chemicals" go back decades, and are located in many places around the U.S. Miles O'Brien looks at the impact they've had in one community in New Hampshire, and how the U.S. Air Force is now dealing with its past use of them.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The infrastructure legislation signed by President Biden last month contains $10 billion for cleaning up drinking water that has been contaminated by a specific group of manmade chemicals.

    But problems with these so-called forever chemicals go back decades, and are located in many places around the U.S.

    Miles O'Brien looks at the impact they have had in one community in New Hampshire, and how the Air Force is now dealing with its past use of them.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    Not far from her home in Rye, New Hampshire, Mindi Messmer and I are standing on a bridge over some troubled waters.

    So, what's in here?

  • Mindi Messmer, Environmental Scientist:

    So, high levels of perfluorinated chemicals, which are the components of the AFFF foams.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    AFFF, aqueous film forming foam, is an unsurpassed way to stop a raging petroleum fire.

    For about 20 years, firefighters used it in training exercises and to douse at least one big fire up the creek at nearby Pease Air Force Base, closed in 1991. The foam is water-and oil-repellent, thanks to perfluorinated chemicals, more commonly known as PFAS, now linked to a host of serious human health issues and possibly cancer.

    Would you eat a fish caught out of this creek?

  • Mindi Messmer:

    I would not. The levels of PFAS are too high. We know that the PFAS and some of the PFAS compounds absorb into the fish bodies in particular.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    Before the pandemic, she prepared a sample for me to bring to biogeochemist Elsie Sunderland at Harvard University. In her lab in Cambridge, they are focused on PFAS, how it moves through the environment and how it can harm human health.

  • Elsie Sunderland, Harvard University:

    There have been some reports of cancer at very high levels of exposure. There is also a whole suite of other impacts, obesity, risk of diabetes, cardiovascular disease. A whole suite of health outcomes that we're quite concerned about are associated with exposures to these compounds.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    Invented in the 1940s, PFAS became popular in an era when chemicals were widely celebrated as modern marvels.

    This was the entertainment in the DuPont exhibit at the 1964 World's Fair.

  • Singers (singing):

    Better living through chemistry. That's the promise of DuPont.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    To say PFAS chemicals are ubiquitous today seems an understatement. Besides AFFF, they are in Teflon, Scotchgard, plates, parkas, ski wax, boots, and shoes. The list goes on and on.

  • Elsie Sunderland:

    We have seen somewhere between 98 percent and 99 percent of individuals have detectable levels of these chemicals in their blood.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    A big part of the problem is, the same stout chemical bonds that make PFAS so impervious also make them practically indestructible.

    They stubbornly persist in the environment and in our bodies, so much so, they are called forever chemicals. Dr. Sunderland is working hard to figure out who is most at risk.

  • Elsie Sunderland:

    For most people in the general population, although the levels are detectable, they're very low. It's a very different situation than in these contaminated communities, where you do see individuals with orders-of-magnitude higher levels of exposure.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    The water I brought her team from that stream was off the charts. There were three PFAS chemicals in it that far exceeded New Hampshire limits on the chemicals in drinking water, between 12 and 18 parts per trillion.

    And drinking water is the issue that triggered Mindi Messmer into action. She is an environmental scientist and was a contractor for the Department of Defense in 2014, when she became concerned about a suspected pediatric cancer cluster in her town.

  • Mindi Messmer:

    I reported it to the state in 2014. I was asking them, can you sample the water? Can you sample the soil? Is there something in common these kids have?

  • Miles O’Brien:

    Soon, the prime suspect came to light. As part of a nationwide testing campaign, the Air Force discovered high levels of PFAS at three wells on its legacy property that provide drinking water to the Portsmouth region.

    It is one site among hundreds nationwide. The environmental working group has documented 679 military sites with known or suspected discharges of PFAS.

  • Roger Walton, Environmental Engineer:

    You are standing at the spot of the original fire training activities.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    When I met him at Pease, Roger Walton was the environmental coordinator for the Base Realignment and Closure Division of the Air Force.

    He took me to the place where firefighters sprayed all that PFAS-tainted foam for all those years. Unaware of the danger, they sprayed the foam very close to a two-century-old well that can generate a million gallons of water per day.

    Businesses inside the footprint of the old base rely on it, including two day care centers.

  • Roger Walton:

    And when it was detected there in may Of 2014, the well was immediately shut off, and that set all of these gears in motion for the PFAS treatment.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    The Air Force built an elaborate system of pumps, pipes, and tanks to remove PFAS from the groundwater. The water is filtered twice, through granular activated carbon and beads of ion exchange resin.

    By August of 2021, they had removed enough PFAS from groundwater to reopen that well. But some nagging questions linger. There are more than 9,000 distinct formulations of perfluorinated chemicals, but they are regulated individually.

    So, in this case, they are looking for only four types of PFAS, those that have limits set by the state.

  • Mindi Messmer:

    There's a lot we don't know about whether or not those other things are slipping through the treatment systems or whether they're being treated. We don't even know what the other chemicals could be in those samples as they come out of the treatment system.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    In 2009, the chemical industry introduced yet another PFAS formulation called GenX, claiming it is more inert.

    Is that true or false?

  • Elsie Sunderland:

    Well, I think the answer is, we don't know. We simply haven't had the time to study GenX to say conclusively what the health outcomes are associated with exposures for human populations.

    We're not proactively regulating these chemicals yet, but none of them look to be particularly safe.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    In October, the Biden Environmental Protection Agency announced a road map toward federal drinking water limits for PFAS.

    The revelations and the response here in New Hampshire over the years offer a preview of what lies ahead.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Miles O'Brien in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.

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