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They Knew the Dangers—But Hid Them from the Public

June 04, 2023

Study Shows Health Dangers of "Forever Chemicals" Were Covered Up by Manufacturers

Chemical companies that made PFAS compounds knew that their products caused health issues but hid that information for years from the public, regulators, and their own employees. A new study by the University of California, San Francisco, shows that the industry took a page from the tobacco playbook to delay public awareness of the toxicity of so-called “forever chemicals,” which break down very slowly in the environment.

Credit: UC, San Francisco (UCSF)

The chemicals have been linked to serious health effects, including liver and immune system damage and some cancers. They have been used widely in products such as clothing, packaging, and firefighting foam, among others, and are found everywhere on Earth, contaminating water, soils, and wildlife.

The authors of the study say that little information was publicly known about PFAS toxicity for 50 years. However, the industry had multiple studies showing adverse health effects at least two decades before they were reported to the EPA as required. The analysis says that industry executives had evidence of toxicity and all the documents were marked “confidential.” In some cases executives were explicit that they wanted memos destroyed.

The study was published just days before three companies, including DuPont, said they reached a settlement in the first of many lawsuits based on PFAS contamination. The companies will pay nearly $1.2 billion into a fund to help some public water systems. One of the lawyers involved against the companies told the Associated Press that the settlement deals with just a fraction of the contamination. Additionally, it was reported that another company, 3M, also reached a settlement for $10 billion with cities and towns to resolve water pollution claims. Reuters reports that there are more than 4,000 lawsuits filed against chemical companies based upon PFAS chemicals.

The PFAS study was published in Annals of Global Health.

Housing Development in Phoenix Area Limited as Groundwater Shrinks

Arizona governor Katie Hobbs announced last week that there won’t be any new housing developments in the Phoenix metro area—one of  the fastest growing regions in the country—if they rely solely on groundwater. The announcement received much national attention, as it may portend the effect of the current drought and climate change on projects, particularly housing, in the drying West. 

City of Chandler neighborhoods | Credit: Chandlernews

The state says it gets more than 40 percent of its supply from groundwater. Arizona has already voluntarily reduced the water it receives from the Colorado River, and now state leaders are recognizing that there is not enough groundwater to meet demand over the next century.

A study by the Arizona Department of Water Resources concluded that groundwater levels will fall by an average of 185 feet in the Phoenix area over the next century, according to an official who spoke to the Washington Post. The study notes that the groundwater has been overpumped for decades as the state has continued to rely on it.

Attracting new companies to relocate to the state is a major part of local economies, but the announcement about home building may jeopardize that. A large portion of the growth in Arizona has been the rapid development of sprawling suburbs that depend on groundwater. Some on the edges of the metro area will endure the brunt of the state’s announcement more than others, including the city of Phoenix.

More than 40 years ago, the state passed its Groundwater Management Act to monitor the resource in populated areas, according to Sarah Porter of the Kyl Center for Water Policy at Arizona State University, who spoke to Inside Climate News. She added that the regulations are working to prevent homes from being sold without water.

According to the New York Times, Maricopa County with its sprawling suburbs and Phoenix, uses twice as much water as New York City but has only half as many people. The Phoenix metropolitan area, the fifth largest in the U.S., has more than five million people.  Maricopa County, in which it sits, is bigger in terms of square miles than four states. The governor said last Thursday that the state was not immediately running out of water and that there would still be new construction in cities like Phoenix that already have shown they have a 100-year supply.

Cars and Trucks Have an Additional Source of Pollution Beyond Tailpipes

When it comes to mitigating climate change, we know that putting fewer greenhouse gases into the atmosphere is key—especially from transportation.  There is some good news to report. In addition to electric vehicle sales growing exponentially, according to the EPA, cars and trucks have gotten more efficient over the years, and clean air emission standards have reduced pollutants, such as particulate matter, carbon monoxide, and VOCs.

Credit: Hamedog/Creative Commons

It's that last one—VOCs, which stands for volatile organic compounds—that got the attention of researchers from the University of York in the UK. VOCs can contribute to smog, but according to a new study, gasoline-powered cars not only pump them into the air from their tailpipes—but also from their windshields. That's because wiper fluid contains not only water but also alcohols meant to tackle everything from bird poop to road grime, as well as small amounts of antifreeze to keep it flowing in cold temperatures. Those VOCs are easily vaporized and can contribute to climate warming.

To conduct their research, the team parked a van near a busy roadway that was equipped with several instruments, including a mass spectrometer. They then compared measurements with those from a site with minimal traffic to calculate the average amount of vapor given off per car for each kilometer traveled for several key VOCs.

The authors found that two alcohols in wiper fluid—ethanol and methanol—were nearly twice the amount of all VOCs released in exhaust—a much larger fraction of real-world vehicle emissions than previously thought. And while more electric vehicles will be huge in reducing greenhouse gases, EVs will need to clean their windshields too. So, the authors say, VOCs in wiper fluids and other car care products—emissions once hidden in plain sight—will need to be factored into future regulatory policies.

The study was published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology.

Bees and Butterflies Aren’t the Only Pollinators

There are about 400,000 species of beetles in the world, making them among the largest group of animals on the planet. And the vast majority of beetles are weevils—an insect many consider to be a pest for sometimes munching on pasta and grains in our pantries. And, of course, there are boll weevils, which gained notoriety starting in the late 1800s for devastating cotton crops in the American South. In the early 1970s, about one-third of all pesticides applied in the United States targeted boll weevils.

The weevil Anchylorhynchus trapezicollis is the main pollinator of South American palm Syagrus coronata. Here, the weevil is seen on a female flower, touching the receptive parts and leaving pollen grains in the process. | Credit: Bruno de Medeiros

But according to new research by the Field Museum in Chicago, weevils aren’t evil. They are actually the unsung heroes of pollination but less studied than celebrities like bees and butterflies that flit from flower to flower to feed and fertilize plants by spreading pollen. Weevils, on the other hand, want a long-term, serious relationship with a plant so they can settle down and start a family.

Weevils are known as “brood-site pollinators” because the insects spend their whole life with a plant, both pollinating them and using them as breeding sites for their larvae. The next closest thing in nature is the connection between monarch butterflies and milkweed, which is the only plant their caterpillars will eat and the place where the butterflies lay their eggs. However, monarchs will happily feast on many flowers.

Misconceptions about weevils have made them enemy number one with farmers, but weevil species pollinate plants from orchids to date palms. For that reason, the researchers want to reintroduce us to a group of insects that most people want to kill but are actually benefiting us and the ecosystems we depend on.

The study was published in the journal Peer Community in Ecology.

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