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PFAS: The water contaminant that scientists say isn't going away

Forever chemicals: The threat of PFAS in our water
Forever chemicals: The threat of PFAS in our water 11:21

On a cold winter day on the Stoneridge Dairy Farm, in Arundel, Maine, Fred Stone was worried more about his cows being cold than himself, especially his prized Brown Swiss, named Blue. "She likes to give me a hard time, as much as she can," Stone told correspondent Lee Cowan.

Fred and his wife, Laura, are only the latest generation to work this dairy; it's been in the family for over a century.

But since November of 2016, every drop of milk – that white gold that's been a reliable livelihood for generations – is now being poured right down the drain.

"It's a helluva waste," said Stone. "Even I can't drink it."

He had no idea the wastewater that the state licensed him to use to fertilize his fields was also swimming with potentially toxic chemicals, called PFAS. Now, his land, his cows (and, yes, their milk) are all contaminated.

Cowan asked, "Had you ever heard of PFAS or any of these chemicals?"

"Never," he replied.

A lot of people haven't. PFAS is an acronym for a family of man-made compounds called per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances. The CDC has listed a host of health effects believed to be associated with exposure to those chemicals, including cancer, liver damage, increased cholesterol, and a lot more. The chemicals are so highly mobile, they're not only being found in soil and ground water, but in the atmosphere, too. In fact, they've even been detected in raindrops falling in some of the most remote areas of the world.

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PFAS chemicals have been around for decades. DuPont was the first to use PFAS in Teflon, giving us those non-stick pots and pans. 3M used a different PFAS in its once-popular fabric protector, Scotchgard.

Today, those chemicals' cousins can still be found in almost anything designed to fend off oil, water or grease. That includes things like pizza boxes, paper plates, rain jackets, ski wax, even guitar strings.

PFAS are basically impossible to escape, and scientists say they're likely here to stay.

"They are nearly indestructible … You can't get rid of 'em," said Patrick Macroy, the former deputy director of the advocacy group Defend Our Heath in Maine. He explains just why that staying power is so very troubling: "A lot of chemicals, when they go into your body or they end up in the environment, they break down. They slowly decompose. PFAS don't do that. Once you put PFAS somewhere, it's gonna stay there practically forever."

That means the levels of these so-called "forever chemicals" can build up and linger in our bloodstreams forever.

Cathy and Bruce Harrington were notified by Maine's Department of Environmental Protection that their drinking water was tainted with PFAS: "They're supposed to be under 40 parts per trillion," said Cathy. "Ours is 26,000 per trillion."

For the Harringtons, who live next to a farm and use a well, the likely source was two industrial plants not far away.

"They come and tested our water," said Cathy. "And they said, 'We'll send you a report in a couple of weeks or whatever.' And they called us in a few days, and they said, 'Do not drink your water, don't use it for cooking, nothing.'"

All for what, asked Bruce? "Bottom line is, we don't need frickin' eggs to slide out of pans, versus people dying."

Melanie Benesh, a legislative attorney at the Environmental Working Group in Washington, said, "PFAS contamination is really a national crisis, and the real scale of contamination is staggering. The more we test, the more we find it."

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Benesh said thousands of sites nationwide are polluted with PFAS. And she lays the blame for that growing crisis squarely at the feet of the companies who invented the chemicals in the first place. "It is the manufacturers, like DuPont and 3M, who have gotten us here today," she said. "So, they've known for 70 years that they were poisoning the water, and they didn't tell the EPA, they didn't tell their neighbors, they didn't tell their workers. They didn't tell anyone because they were making too much money."

In the last two decades, thousands of lawsuits have been brought against the manufacturers for allegedly knowing PFAS chemicals were dangerous. While most deny they did anything wrong, settlement offers have been pouring in, to the tune of billions of dollars.

But Benesh said the manufacturers aren't the only ones to blame: "There has also been regulatory failure. The FDA knew in the 1960s, the Department of Defense knew in the 1970s, the EPA has known since at least the '90s, and they didn't treat the issue with amount of urgency that it needed."

Regulating PFAS is like playing a game of whack-a- mole. DuPont and 3M phased out two of the PFAS suspected of being the most harmful, but they still manufacture others. In fact, there are thousands of variants.

Benesh said, "Many of them have real similarities that make it very likely that one is just as toxic as the other."

Take the plant DuPont built in North Carolina back in the '70s, and then spun off to a different company, called Chemours, back in 2015.

Almost a decade ago, Detlef Knappe, an environmental engineering professor at North Carolina State University, started testing the water near that plant that sits right along the Cape Fear River. In 2017, his research made headlines: A study said a new PFAS called GenX was clearly present in the water.

Emily Donovan, a mother of two who lives about 80 miles downstream from the Chemours plant, said, "It's unholy. We live in America. I should be able to enjoy a shower and not worry that it's going to give me or my kids cancer."

The Cape Fear River is a source of drinking water for more than 350,000 people in and around Wilmington, N.C. Donovan, like most people , just always assumed it was safe. "The EPA doesn't require utilities to regularly test for them," she said, "so there's really no way for the average American to know if it's even in their drinking water right now. Or in their food. Or in their air."

Based on what it called new evidence, this past June the EPA did update its drinking water advisories about PFAS, warning that even the tiniest amount over a lifetime may be enough to cause negative health effects in humans. But it stopped short of creating a new federal drinking water standard.

"There has been no new drinking water standard in the United States since the 1990s," said Donovan. So, she co-founded Clean Cape Fear, a community action group that, among other things, has been fighting for both federal and state agencies to crack down harder on all of the PFAS pollutants.

"You have two choices: You can have a breakdown about it, or you can channel that energy and that heartbreak into something productive and create a positive," Donovan said.

Chemours was forced by state environmental regulators to install a host of anti-pollution technologies. It's cost them millions.

In a statement to CBS News, the company said it's destroying "over 99.99% of PFAS" in the air, and it's reduce(d) "PFAS compounds reaching the Cape Fear River … by 97%."

As for the PFAS that have built up in the ground over the years, Chemours said it will build a barrier wall that will capture and treat that ground water – a process it says will remove nearly all of them.

Detlef Knappe said, "The exposure has dropped dramatically for people who live downstream; it's much tougher for the people who live immediately around the plant whose wells are contaminated."

What Professor Knappe is now interested in investigating is to see how much, if any, PFAS is present in the food grown nearby.  "We have analyzed some of the produce from backyard gardens in that area that suggest the levels can be quite high," he said.

Residents like Jane Jacobs – a member of the native Tuscarora Nation – have always seen the land as sacred. "I'm scared that it's too late," she told Cowan. "I'm scared that we're gonna die because of what we've ingested."

She fears the blight on her tribe's land might just end a way of life.

"My people have always hunted in these swamps, but they're fed by the rivers," she said. "So, now the animals are polluted the same way the water's polluted, because they drank out of the rivers and out of the swamps."

No one who lives off the land would willingly poison it. Fred Stone is certainly one of those people, as are farmers in nearly every state who use treated wastewater to nourish their fields. He, just like his father and his grandfather before him, saw their soil as part of their soul. Cold and draught were supposed to be the biggest threats, not a chemical made by man.

Said Stone, "At some point in time I'm going to have to tell my father and my grandfather what I did with the farm that they entrusted me with."

Cowan said, "But this wasn't your fault, though."

"It wasn't my fault, but it was under my watch. And now, it's gonna be gone. So, that's it. That's the end of the road."

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Story produced by Sari Aviv. Editor: George Pozderec. 

See also: 

Nonprofit aims to remove "forever chemicals" in drinking water 02:02
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