US Navy firefighter via Wikimedia Commons
Anyone who pays attention to U S news these days cannot be blamed for assuming that bipartisanship—specifically, the joint sponsorship of bills by both Democrats and Republicans—is ancient history, maybe even to the extent that they've installed separate Democratic and Republican bathrooms at the Capitol.
But a small glimmer of bipartisanship came last Friday when seven Democratic senators and an equal number of Republicans introduced a bill to classify a group of chemicals known as PFAS as toxic and worthy of Superfund cleanup efforts.
And the newly named chief of the US Environmental Protection Agency, Andrew Wheeler, says he's going to do something about PFAS, and has received both grudging approval on the part of opponents of the current administration and criticism that what he's proposing doesn't go nearly far enough.
Maybe you already know all about PFAS, but I didn't, so here's a brief summary of what they are and why they're in the news.
Fluorine is the most chemically reactive of the halogens, a group of elements in the periodic table that includes chlorine, iodine, and bromine. Fluorine is the faithful-forever element: whatever fluorine bonds to tends to stay bonded to it. So chemicals made with fluorine substituted for chlorine, for instance, tend to be very stable and last forever unless you put them in high-temperature incinerators, for example.
One of the most familiar chemicals that use fluorine is polytetrafluoroethylene, known more widely under the trade name Teflon. Shortly after the discovery of Teflon and related fluorinated compounds after World War II, they were hailed for their stability and apparent lack of toxicity. Besides Teflon, chemists found that they could make effective and long-lasting surfactants with a group of fluorinated chemicals that are known by the general name of PFAS (perfluorinated alkylated substances).
Surfactants are used in detergents to dissolve grease in water solutions and also to change the way surfaces react to water. Typically, a surfactant will be a longish molecule with a hydrophobic end that likes to be in oil, and a hydrophilic end that likes to be in water. You may have seen an experiment in which you put a few drops of oil on the surface of water in a clean pan. The oil forms round bubble-like globules with sharp boundaries. Then putting just a tiny amount of dish soap in the middle of the pan will cause the oil droplets to run away toward the edge of the pan like pigeons when a cat shows up. PFAS compounds form long-lasting foams and have been used in firefighting foam for years.
Trouble is, owing to their persistent chemical nature, these compounds don't biodegrade. And because they are easily dissolved and travel in water, they are found in drinking water in many states and have been detected in the blood of newborn babies. And that isn't good, because the US Centers for Disease Control says that PFAS chemicals are implicated in a number of adverse human health effects, such as increased levels of cholesterol and cancer, lowered fertility in women, and interference with physiological development in children.
The US military was one of the biggest users of PFAS, as the military specification for fire-fighting foam used for petroleum fires virtually required the use of PFAS in it. Over the years, manufacturers have discovered that the stuff accumulates in humans and have begun phasing it out voluntarily, but that does nothing about the tons of it that is still lying around wherever firefighting teams have practiced using foam, which means hundreds of both civilian and military locations all across the US.
So what's to be done? Well, recognizing the problem is the first step, and that seems to be happening now. The hazards of PFAS to humans are not as clearly defined as we'd like them to be, but they're sufficiently serious that major steps to remediate PFAS contamination are justified. And that's just what the PFAS Action Act of 2019 would do.
Designation of a place as a Superfund site means federal dollars are available to clean it up, even if it means digging up tons of soil and running it through an incinerator or equally extreme and costly measures. The fact that an equal number of Republican and Democratic senators have joined forces on this measure is a rare sign that there are still a few things that the parties can still agree on.
Practically speaking, the chemicals have lost whatever commercial sponsorship they may have had, as their US manufacturers have abandoned them, hopefully for chemicals that are of comparable effectiveness while being less toxic. I don't know what happens when you try to fight a fire with Dawn dish soap instead of PFAS foam, but things probably don't go as well. Nevertheless, it's the nature of technologists to learn from their mistakes and make improvements, not only in the direct performance of the product, but in what happens to it after it's used and what it does in its so-called afterlife.
A particularly sad aspect of this story is that while firefighters know they are going into a risky business, running into burning buildings while everyone else is fleeing, they may not have been fully apprised of a more subtle hazard associated with their calling: the hazards of being exposed to all kinds of nasty chemicals that are present in both fires and in firefighting chemicals. Many burning plastics give off very carcinogenic chemicals, and that is one reason why cancer has been the leading cause of death among US firefighters since 2005, according to a 2017 report. Not only do they deal with carcinogens in fires, they've been unwittingly spreading toxic chemicals around every time they use foam to put one out, too.
This is probably more about PFAS chemicals than you perhaps wanted to find out. But every now and then it's good to see that the system—science, technology, government—does still work. Maybe not as well as it could or as fast as it could, but we've identified a problem in PFAS chemicals. US companies have quit making them, lawmakers are agreeing to do something about them, and the rest of us can go on about our business knowing that at least one matter of concern is getting some kind of coordinated attention.
* I thank my sister for her hospitality during my recent stay in Ft. Worth, where I followed her past a nearby fire station as she walked her dog and told me about the connection between firefighters and cancer.
Karl D. Stephan is a professor of electrical engineering at Texas State University in San Marcos, Texas. This article has been republished, with permission, from his blog Engineering Ethics, which is a MercatorNet partner site. His ebook Ethical and Otherwise: Engineering In the Headlines is available in Kindle format and also in the iTunes store.