A recent news storyon the incineration of persistent, ubiquitous PFAS chemicals in an upstate New York town highlights the inherent difficulties, if not impossibilities, and considerable dangers of these substances. They’re not called “forever chemicals” for nothing. I’ve previously bloggedabout the many health hazards associated with chronic exposure to these chemicals - used to manufacture nonstick and stain-resistant coatings in cookware, clothing, food packaging, carpets, firefighting foam, and other consumer and industrial products. But the frightening point this article drives home for me that PFAS disposal methods may serve to only concentrate the disbursement of these chemicals and substantially increase the risk of harm to residents living near this facility.
The article begins with a historic description of black soot on a home’s windowsill from a nearby incinerator, and how in the last few years there’s been a new odor in the neighborhood that smells “as if someone has been dumping household chemicals in a tub and lighting them on fire.” It notes that, over the past two years, the incinerator had burned about 2.5 million pounds of waste contaminated with PFAS chemicals, including firefighting foam, shipped in from more than two dozen states (including West Virginia, Ohio and Pennsylvania). The article then goes on to detail how emerging data, of which there is none to begin with because no one studied whether incineration works before doing it, shows incineration may not be completely destroying the chemicals and how most incinerators don’t get hot enough to break down PFAS chemicals. The article also mentioned a dispute over some data that indicated PFAS chemicals from the incinerator had drifted downwind and potentially exposed residents at Ritchie’s public housing complex and notes that there is currently no way of measuring the concentrations or composition of PFAS coming out of air stacks.
If these chemicals cannot be completely destroyed through incineration, that means that whatever is left over has to be disposed of in some other way, be it through air dispersal, landfilling or some other way. Tragically, a large number of West Virginians have learned all about those “other ways,”and the full measure of the harm that PFAS “disposal” causes. The post-script in the New York incinerator story was that the operating company agreed to stop incinerating firefighting foam at the behest of the State. Which almost certainly means this foam will need to be disposed of somewhere else.
Given their persistence in the environment, and our bloodstreams, and the sheer volume of the several-decades worth of production of these chemicals, PFAS disposal appears to be a NIMBYproblem of the highest order with relatively little research done so far. While states like New York seemingly have the political will to put a stop to hazardous disposal practices, like ineffective incineration, that waste has to go somewhere and I can easily see other states, particularly those with more of a business-at-just-about-all-costs mentality that would see a short term economic opportunity here. West Virginia has certainly done more than its part to shoulder the public health burden imposed by corporate America’s insatiable, unending quest for “growth” and “profit” through creation and use of PFAS chemicals. Here’s to hoping we don’t add to it by picking up the mantle of PFAS waste disposal as other states realize the exceedingly high health and safety costs of this process. In the meantime, if you believe you may have been exposed to PFAS waste or injured by PFAS chemicals, you should contact an experienced law firm right away to investigate the potential for a claim.