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'Forever Chemicals' Attract Growing Legal Challenges

Biohazard suit with chemicals in a river
By Richard Dahl | Last updated on

"Forever chemicals" are everywhere, or so it seems.

They're commonly called PFAS (pronounced PEE-fass)—short for polyfluroalkyl. They are in our drinking water, our clothes, our cosmetics, our cookware, our carpets, and many other products. They may also cause cancer, decrease fertility, and damage immune systems.

Little surprise then, that PFAS lawsuits are mushrooming.

History of PFAS Controversies

When these chemicals first gained widespread use, over 20 years ago, the defendants were the chemical companies that manufactured them. In 1999, a West Virginia farmer filed the first PFAS-related lawsuit, claiming that the chemical giant DuPont had contaminated groundwater that poisoned and killed over 100 of his cattle. Formerly a household name for manufacturing nonstick cookware under the Teflon brand, DuPont soon became infamous for the side effects of its chemicals, even being the subject of the recent legal thriller Dark Waters. Many more lawsuits followed, and in 2017 DuPont paid out $671 million to settle 3500 of them.

But PFAS are still being used in the manufacture of everyday products because they are uniquely good at repelling oil and fat—making them very profitable. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control considers PFAS to be a "public health concern." But it wasn't until March 14 of this year that the U.S. took the first steps to regulate PFAS. The Environmental Protection Agency released proposed regulations that would require every municipal water system in the country to test for six PFAS chemicals.

Individual states are also moving to restrict PFAS. In 2021, Maine became the first state to enact a law banning products that contain intentionally added PFAS. Several more states are taking steps to restrict their use.

According to the EPA, people can be exposed to PFAS in several ways in addition to drinking water:

  • Eating certain foods that contain PFAS, including fish
  • Swallowing contaminated soil or dust
  • Using products that are made with PFAS or packaged in materials made with PFAS

Recent Litigation

While the first wave of litigation focused on contamination of water supplies by chemical manufacturers, the lawsuits have expanded to include a broader range of defendants in the last few years. Newer defendants include retailers, cosmetics manufacturers, fast-food chains, and paper companies.

A summary of recent action:

  • On March 16, the 300,000-member International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) filed a lawsuit against the National Fire Protection Association. IAFF claims that the protective gear they are required to wear on the job is endangering their health.
  • Earlier this year, class-action lawsuits were filed against makers of tampons, sports drinks, and fruit juice.
  • In December, a lawsuit filed in federal court claims that a Houston manufacturer of plastic containers for food, cleaning supplies, and other consumer products is exposing the public to PFAS.
  • The manufacturing giant 3M announced last year that will be phasing out its use of forever chemicals by the end of 2025. The company has been a heavy user of PFAS, including it in Scotchgard, fire-fighting foams, and stainproof textiles, but is facing billions of dollars in potential legal liability.

How to Reduce Your Risk

Meanwhile, here are some pointers on how to reduce your own exposure to PFAS:

  • Check products labels for ingredients that include the words "fluoro" or "perfluoro."
  • Be aware of food packaging that contains grease-repellent coatings.
  • Choose furniture and carpeting that aren't marketed as "stain resistant."
  • Avoid (or reduce use of) nonstick cookware.
  • Consider using granular-activate carbon and reverse-osmosis filters to reduce PFAS in drinking water.
  • If you work in a setting that exposes you to chemicals, such as a factory or an agricultural environment, be aware of your legal rights to a safe workplace.

Finally, a wise move is to educate yourself on PFAS. Here are a few federal resources we recommend:

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