Opinion: Protecting NH from PFAS

According to a study by the U.S. Geological Survey, 45% of the tap water in the United States is contaminated with “forever chemicals” that are considered dangerous to human health.

According to a study by the U.S. Geological Survey, 45% of the tap water in the United States is contaminated with “forever chemicals” that are considered dangerous to human health. Leonard Ortiz/ The Orange County Register/ TNS


Published: 05-08-2024 6:00 AM

Chris Serrao and Ghena Kubba are students at Phillips Exeter Academy in Exeter.

“There was once a town in the heart of America where all life seemed to live in harmony with its surroundings. The town lay in the midst of a checkerboard of prosperous farms, with fields of grain and hillsides of orchards where, in spring, white clouds of bloom drifted above the green fields. Then a strange blight crept over the area and everything began to change. Some evil spell had settled on the community: mysterious maladies swept the flocks of chickens; the cattle and sheep sickened and died. Everywhere was a shadow of death” - Rachel Carson, “Silent Spring”

At the beginning of her book, Rachel Carson, a pioneer in the realm of environmental justice, details a picturesque scene of nature followed by an end-of-the-world scenario from pollution by poisonous chemicals. Published in 1962, Carson’s words bear an eerie resemblance to the state of our environment today.

At Phillips Exeter, we’ve seen this sentiment echoed in our BIO470 course: Human Population and Resource Consumption. Specifically, we’ve delved into how many of the largest industries continue to cover up their environmental impact for the sake of profit.

Take, for instance, the industrial agricultural sector. In order to keep up with market demand, industrial farmers resort to exploitative means. Aside from the profuse usage of synthetic fertilizers, which damages natural ecosystems, industrial farmers contain their animals in cruel and unsanitary conditions. The commodification of our food products has led to greater pressure on industrial farmers to produce en masse, by any means necessary. One look into an industrial farm, and you’ll find sickly cows stocked in close proximity, fed a GMO-corn diet that causes their stomachs to balloon and suffocate them if we don’t slaughter them before then.

In our class, we learned about the issue of an insidious chemical — PFAS or Per and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances. They’re found in all kinds of products from non-stick pans to waterproof clothing. These chemicals have seeped into our water sources and have infiltrated over 97% of people’s blood all around the world. It’s even in the burger meat from the cattle already placed in unsanitary conditions. As consumers, we bear the burdens of industrial negligence. We believe that it is the market incentive in our economy to constantly produce and undercut costs that are at fault for demolishing our ecosystems. Our hopes for a better world, one in which we look to our left and see the blossoming of all organisms, are stuffed away and plastered as merely a “utopia” or a “dream” by those who serve to reinforce the status quo that we are disillusioned to believe to be the “norm.” American cultural hegemony is a toxin, one floating through our blood alongside PFAS.

The first occurrence of PFAS chemicals was by Dupont, one of the largest chemical companies in the world. In 1951, Dupont began purchasing perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) for use in manufacturing Teflon, a synthetic polymer known for its non-sticking properties. Instead of properly disposing of it, Dupont dumped thousands of pounds of the chemical waste into the Ohio River and into pits which seeped into the ground and contaminated the drinking water of nearby communities.

At the same time, Dupont conducted research on PFAS and deduced that it caused organ damage in animals. In the 1970s, Dupont also discovered that there were high concentrations of toxic chemicals in the blood of their workers and did not notify their workers of this. Then, in the 1980s, Dupont confirmed that the chemical was affecting the health of their workers and found defects in the babies of their pregnant employees, and even after all this, Dupont did not make the information public.

By the 1990s, Dupont knew that PFAS caused cancerous testicular, pancreatic, and liver tumors in lab animals. In 2006, they reached a $16.5 million settlement with the Environmental Protection Agency for concealing information and knowledge about PFAS’ toxicity. The $16.5 million settlement represented less than 2% of the company’s profits that year. Dupont has been found liable for the health of thousands of plaintiffs.

At the heart of the issue is the mindset in which profiteering companies like Dupont approach the natural world. Our climate breakdown is not the consequence of any one individual or group, but rather a product of a system in which companies can exploit the environment for capital gain. Furthermore, the all too familiar story of climate cover-ups by companies can be seen as a natural byproduct of the interests of a system that holds wealth over well-being.

As a part of our course, we decided to head over to the New Hampshire State House to testify in support of House Bill 1089 related to statutes of limitation on PFAS cases:

A civil action arising out of any harm or injury caused by a person or entity found legally responsible for or an action for any damages resulting from PFAS exposure may be brought at any time after a plaintiff or the state discovers such harm, injury, or damages and the causal relationship of an act or omission to such harm, injury, or damages.

We spoke about the importance of passing this bill because of the ambiguity and lack of research surrounding the health effects and the subsequent manifestation of PFAS on people’s health. Removing the precedent of a 3-year statute of limitations allows victims of PFAS contamination to more rigorously understand the status of their health as it relates to PFAS contamination. Right after testifying our case, a man from D.C. came to testify in opposition to this bill. His lobbying serves to protect and reinforce the interests of the companies he represents, symbolic of a system overrun by the voices of large conglomerates overwhelming the valuable voices of the community.

While PFAS is simply one symptom of the cover-up of issues, we want to remind all of you of the importance of standing up for what is right and the communal good. We were hopeful after seeing that the New Hampshire legislators were moved by the testimony of 17-year-olds. Many representatives spoke out against the lobbyist, expressing their concern for the health and well-being of communities across New Hampshire.

Although this is only the beginning of the passage of the bill, the prospects so far are bright. As much as we love to discuss the politics of the primaries, we need to remember to award a great deal of importance to our local politics, which oftentimes determine more about how we live and our daily lives.

Most importantly, it is our duty to examine how our habits and practices have alienated us from the environment, fueled by the avarice of corporations. Engaging in politics is a step in realizing the capacity of mankind and how deeply we have and constantly are, robbed of our inherent worth.