MOBILE, Ala. (CN) — When the Environmental Protection Agency’s new guidance for lifetime exposure to so-called “forever chemicals” was released in June, Brenda Hampton was, in all places, at the 3rd annual National PFAS Meeting in Wilmington, North Carolina.
PFAS, an acronym for a family of synthetic chemicals known as per- and polyflouroalkyl substances, have been used since the 1940s and adapted for products ranging from nonstick cookware, waterproof fabrics, stain resistant carpets and rugs and packaging for food and personal care products, among other things. They are known as forever chemicals because they do not degrade over time
In May 2016, the EPA issued a health advisory for two common PFAS, perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA). The acceptable limit was set at 70 parts per trillion (ppt), both individually and combined, if both compounds are present. The EPA guidelines assume only 20% of the average human exposure to such chemicals comes from drinking water, while the other 80% originates from other sources.
Regardless of the source, the Centers for Disease Control has since estimated most Americans have PFAS in their bodies, where it accumulates over time. While health testing is still considered emerging, elevated PFAS levels have been linked to increased risks for certain types of cancers, particularly kidney, thyroid and testicular cancer, while the chemicals may also affect the immune system, increase cholesterol levels, increase the risk of high blood pressure and affect the growth and development of fetuses and infants.
But on June 15, the EPA dramatically lowered the limits for both PFOS and PFOA — .02 ppt for the former and .004 ppt for the latter —essentially declaring that any detectable amount of either two chemicals may be hazardous to human health.
Hampton is the administrator of two north Alabama community groups focused on PFAS contamination in Morgan and Lawrence counties. In late 2021, manufacturer 3M was one of several companies that entered into a $98 million settlement agreement with local municipal organizations and utilities near Decatur, where a lawsuit alleged they polluted the Tennessee River and surrounding areas with PFAS.
Hampton grew suspicious of environmental pollution in the region years before, after her mother required a kidney transplant in 1997. Hampton was living in Boston at the time but returned to Lawrence County to donate her own left kidney. Her mother’s, she said, had become “crystalized.”
“During this time I was returning home, eating the food, consuming the water, and then when I got sick, my doctor told me I had been exposed to industrial toxins,” she said.
Various companies and organizations spurred testing of the Tennessee River watershed in 2016 and shortly thereafter, the West Morgan-East Lawrence Water and Sewer Authority (WMEL) issued an advisory to customers not to drink its water. A pair of lawsuits followed, and the settlement agreements reached last year included reimbursement for certain related expenses, repairs and improvements to landfills and sludge disposal techniques, $22 million in payouts to municipal organizations and utilities and the bulk, $35 million, for a new recreational facility and ballfields.
Hampton said the settlement did little to ease her community’s concerns. Even though WMEL cut the ribbon on a reverse osmosis filtration system last summer, Hampton said she’s spent the last seven years delivering bottled water, food and medical supplies and will continue so long as there is a need.
“The lawsuit didn’t do anything for me and it didn’t do anything for a lot of people, but I am pleased to see those companies settling with some people and it's my understanding checks are being sent out now,” she said. “But this is a poor community where people have a lot of needs, and it has only been amplified by the pollution.”