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The Newsroom: A deep dive on the science and politics of PFAS

This week, guest host Kelly Kenoyer draws on months of reporting to present a closer look at what's going on with PFAS, the family of 'forever chemicals' that includes GenX and thousands of others. We'll tackle the history, science, and politics of the problem — and look at what can be done in the future.

Editor's note: Two quick clarifications, first, in the podcast AFFF is described as a "chemical" in firefighting foam, but it actually refers to the foam itself (Aqueous Film-Forming Foam). Second, the Intercept series deals with EPA handling of 'assessments,' not permits.

Below, find helpful links from the show, the full questions and responses from Chemours and the EPA (NCDEQ has not responded), and a disclaimer on the use of the word 'corruption.'

Links mentioned in the show

Questions and response from Chemours

Questions sent to Chemours:

  • Is Chemours still shipping wastewater to Texas for deep-well injections?
  • How much wastewater goes to Texas each week/month/year, however often you send it?
  • Do you have any future plans for what you’ll do with wastewater other than deep-well injection?
  • Do you have any comment on the GenX toxicity assessment from the EPA?
  • Do you intend to continue using PFAS in perpetuity, or are you transitioning to green chemistry solutions?
  • What will Chemours do if PFAS becomes a superfund eligible category of contaminants?

Statement from Chemours:

Chemours established a reverse osmosis (RO) recycle treatment system in 2020 where we treat process waste water at our Fayetteville Works site. We recycle as much of this water as possible to reduce our water intake. The water that cannot by recycled is sent for deep welling. That volume is approximately 6 truckloads of water per day. NC DEQ has been processing the site NPDES 002 outfall permit renewal for the last two years and, when approved, the water that has been treated by RO will be included in that permit, reducing the volume of water that is trucked and deep welled. Regarding the EPA’s GenX toxicity assessment, Chemours supports regulation of PFAS substances, including HFPO-Dimer Acid, and we share a common goal with the EPA – to have a Reference Dose (RfD) and Health Advisory that are unassailable for their science. However, we have concerns about how the HFPO-Dimer Acid RfD was developed and the data and criteria upon which it is based and have engaged with the EPA on the matter. Regarding your PFAS questions, Chemours’ fluorinated chemistries are essential to the U.S. economy and U.S. technology leadership. From aerospace and defense to advanced electronics and clean energy, there is often no domestically manufactured alternative replacement for Chemours’ fluoropolymers. For example, Chemours is the only domestic producer of a specific fluoropolymer used in the manufacture of semiconductor chips. Chemours’ chemistries are also critical to achieving the United States’ clean energy transition and decarbonization ambitions, from their use in the manufacturing of lithium-ion batteries, without which electric cars and other modes of transportation would not be possible, to the production of green hydrogen as an alternative to fossil fuels.

Questions and responses from the U.S. Department of Environmental Protection

Q: Can you explain what “suggestive of cancer” means in the GenX toxicity assessment?

A: The Suggestive Evidence of Carcinogenic Potential for oral exposure to GenX chemicals in humans is based on the finding of increased incidence of specific tumor types (see text below from GenX toxicity assessment) at the high doses in one rat study. “Suggestive” was selected because there is evidence of cancer after GenX chemical exposure but this evidence is only from one study in one species.

Excerpted from US EPA’s final Toxicity Assessment from 2021 (https://www.epa.gov/system/files/documents/2021-10/genx-chemicals-toxicity-assessment_tech-edited_oct-21-508.pdf pp. 81-82: “5.6 Cancer")

The single cancer bioassay for HFPO dimer acid ammonium salt showed increased incidence of liver tumors (females) and combined pancreatic acinar adenomas and carcinomas (males) in rats at the high doses only. Additionally, a statistically insignificant increase in the incidence of testicular interstitial cell adenoma was noted at the high dose. Although that result was not statistically significant compared to controls, the authors of the study conclude that “a relationship to treatment for these findings in the 50 mg/kg/day group cannot be ruled out,” while also suggesting that Leydig cell tumor induction in rodents might have low relevance to humans (Caverly Rae et al., 2015). Given these uncertainties and the large number of early deaths in the study (see section 4.4), the existing evidence from this single chronic study is considered inadequate to justify a quantitative assessment. Further, the available data for HFPO dimer acid ammonium salt suggest that mice might be more sensitive to exposure to GenX chemicals than rats. The available study (DuPont-18405-1238, 2013) only evaluated rats; there are no studies measuring cancer endpoints in mice. Given the evidence that the liver is the target organ for toxicity and primary organ for tumor development, the lack of data evaluating cancer in mice is a database deficiency. Thus, under EPA’s Guidelines for Carcinogen Risk Assessment (EPA, 2005a), there is Suggestive Evidence of Carcinogenic Potential of oral exposure to GenX chemicals in humans, based on the female hepatocellular adenomas and hepatocellular carcinomas and male combined pancreatic acinar adenomas and carcinomas. No data are available to evaluate cancer risk via dermal or inhalation exposure.”

Q: Can EPA address the reported corruption within the New Chemicals Division that was brought up in The Intercept by Sharon Lerner? Particularly since the roadmap relies on that division to gatekeep new PFAS?

A: EPA’s mission to protect human health and the environment requires public trust and accountability. The agency is committed to ensuring its decisions are free from unwarranted interference and that the agency’s scientific integrity policy, which is a bedrock principle for the Biden-Harris Administration, is upheld. EPA is home to world-class scientists. The agency will continue to ensure their voices and the role of science will guide its decisions going forward. EPA takes seriously all allegations of violations of scientific integrity and is committed to fostering a culture of evaluation and continuous learning that promotes an open exchange of differing scientific and policy positions. Retaliation against EPA employees for reporting alleged violations will not be tolerated.

A few words on 'corruption'

For News Director Ben Schachtman: In legal terms, corruption refers to federal and state laws which forbid elected officials and government employees from doing pretty much anything in direct exchange for receiving money, gifts, favors — or even just the promise of those things.

There’s also a much murkier gray area around things like donations to political campaigns that are followed by industry-friendly legislation, an issue made more complicated by the 2010 Citizens United ruling in the U.S. Supreme Court. Then there's the long history of government employees who push for industry-friendly regulations and later end up with lucrative jobs in the industries they were once tasked with overseeing, as well as employees from industries being appointed to the regulatory bodies that once oversaw their work, often by administrations seeking to dial back or remove government regulations.

All of those murkier issues can and still do get called corruption, although the word is — importantly — being used in the lay sense, and not as allegations of criminal misconduct.

Kelly Kenoyer is an Oregonian transplant on the East Coast. She attended University of Oregon’s School of Journalism as an undergraduate, and later received a Master’s in Journalism from University of Missouri- Columbia. Contact her on Twitter @Kelly_Kenoyer or by email: KKenoyer@whqr.org.