Some American chemical companies have an important lesson to learn: It doesn’t pay to keep secrets.
Earlier this month, DuPont and four other companies filed a suit to prevent The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and the Rome News-Tribune from obtaining certain documents. Those legal filings reveal how much the chemical companies are paying to settle a lawsuit over the contamination of the Oostanaula River, the source of the city of Rome’s drinking water.
Analyses show the river contains polyfluoroalkyl and perfluoroalkyl substances, better known as PFAS, or “forever chemicals.” That’s because manufacturers upstream use PFAS, a possible carcinogen, in the making of carpeting and flooring.
The companies, sued by the city of Rome, say they are against releasing the terms of the settlement because the payment amounts should be considered trade secrets.
The city’s case is just one of more than an estimated 15,000 claims that have been filed nationwide against DuPont (and its affiliates Chemours and Corteva) as well as 3M, for PFAS contamination, according to Time magazine. Other smaller companies are also facing similar lawsuits.
The chemicals are found in dozens of products, everything from fabrics to food packaging and cookware. Exposure to even low levels of PFAS is linked to health concerns, such as increased risk of some cancers, high cholesterol, hormone and immune system disruptions, and developmental delays in children.
According to the claims in the lawsuits, the biggest PFAS manufacturers spent four decades suppressing information about the dangers of the forever chemicals. Now they are paying the price for that secrecy and asking their lawyers to try to keep that price a secret as potential litigants pile up.
Water systems in Clayton and Henry counties, as well as Austell, Covington and Cumming, are among 11 so far in Georgia that have reported PFAS contamination. In Georgia, 262 water systems are required to test for PFAS, an unregulated contaminant, and report the results to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency by 2025.
More than 90% of Americans have PFAS in our blood from various sources, though industrial workers, people who live near industrial facilities, pregnant women and children have some of the highest exposure levels, according to the EPA.
Legal and environmental experts estimate it will take hundreds of billions of dollars to pay for testing and remediation to individuals, communities and the thousands of eligible water providers across the country that may have PFAS contamination.
But the massive litigation now underway might have been avoided if two of the biggest manufacturers of PFAS had been more forthcoming back in the 1970s when they first learned about the health impacts of these forever chemicals.
A recent study in the Annals of Global Health analyzed industry documents that revealed DuPont and 3M knew 40 years before the public health community that PFAS were “highly toxic when inhaled and moderately toxic when ingested.”
Rather than reveal those findings, the industry employed strategies like those used by the tobacco, pharmaceutical and other industries to suppress unfavorable scientific research and distort public discourse, said the report.
More than $200 billion dollars later, we know what happened to the tobacco industry.
If PFAS manufacturers had shared their early findings with the government, the toxic chemicals could have been subject to regulation under the Superfund law. Federal and state governments might have shared any potential liability. And, more importantly, oversight of the chemicals could have prevented their global spread.
In some ways, the chemicals are still a mystery. Scientists are learning how to detect and measure PFAS, how best to remove them from air, water and soil and how to manage and dispose of the chemicals properly.
The EPA is poised to issue regulations on two main PFAS for the first time, and to set contaminant level goals for drinking water at or near zero.
Federal dollars have been allocated for remediation, but some environmental advocates fear the costs to any water system that exceed funding could be passed on to customers in the form of rate hikes and taxes.
The public should be privy to any settlement amounts resulting from PFAS lawsuits, particularly those involving city governments, if only to help us better understand who is being held accountable and how much financial accountability they have.
We didn’t know we were being exposed to toxic chemicals, and we shouldn’t have to pay to be rid of them.
PFAS producing companies got themselves into this mess by keeping secrets. Maybe the truth will help set them, and us, free.
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