Local leaders urge Congress to reclassify PFAS


Via Flickr.

Eleanor Hildebrandt | June 10, 2021

Local and community leaders are asking Congress to designate per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, as hazardous materials this legislative session. This classification would trigger federal cleanup standards when the chemical is in drinking water.

PFAS can be found all over the United States in drinking water, soil, and air because they are commonly used in nonstick cookware and waterproof clothing. These chemicals are part of a family of persistent synthetic chemicals that can cause adverse health issues. Exposure to PFAS can lead to liver damage, obesity, high cholesterol, and cancer.

The two most well studied PFAs are perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFOA, and perfluorooctane sulfonate, or PFOS. Des Moines, Davenport, and Bettendorf all have high levels of these two chemicals.

The Environmental Protection Agency has taken steps since February to act on PFAS by creating a council on the “forever chemical”. PFAS are also found in the Department of Defense’s firefighting foam that is used at many airports.

Senators Debbie Stabenow and Gary Peters introduced legislation that would hold the Pentagon accountable for its use of the chemicals and oblige it to initiate clean up programs on military bases. New Mexico is currently suing the Department of Defense after PFAS spread to several farms in the state.

Congressional leaders are advocating for specific deadlines to ensure the legislation is effective and the Department of Defense follows through with the clean-up.

The environmental legacy of Vietnam War herbicide weapons


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U.S. planes sprayed herbicide over the Vietnam jungle in the 1960s (flickr). 

Julia Poska | March 1, 2019

Forty-four years since the fall of Saigon, chemical weapons still exist in Vietnamese ecosystems. A new study from the University of Illinois and Iowa State University assessed the environmental impacts of one especially persistent chemical byproduct.

“Agent Orange,” banned in the U.S. since 1971, was a combination of two herbicides sprayed from U.S. aircraft to thin out the jungle and destroy crops. Individually, the herbicides would have disappeared in just days, but together they produced “TCDD,” a highly toxic dioxin can last over 100 years in the right conditions.

Illinois’ Ken Olson, professor emeritus of environmental science, and Iowa State professor of sociology Lois Wright Morton sorted through previous research and humanitarian reports on contaminated Vietnam air bases. They were able to determine TCDD’s paths through the environment, as well as “hotspots” where it still enters the human food supply.

They found that TCDD destroyed Vietnam’s mangroves and mature forests, which may not return to their previous condition for centuries and are now plagued with invasive species. In sprayed areas, runoff, soil erosion and landslides degrade soil, change topography and spread TCDD even further.

Researchers believe that TCDD persists longest in river and sea sediment. TCDD at the bottom of waterbodies is still eaten by bottom-feeding fish and stored in their fatty tissues. The toxin bioaccumulates and biomagnifies in the fatty tissues of their predators when the fish are eaten by humans or other animals.

According to the World Health Institute, the health effects of consuming dioxins like TCDD include skin lesions, altered liver function, and impairment of the immune, nervous, endocrine and reproductive systems.

Olson and Wright Morton advise that the only way to destroy TCDD is to incinerate contaminated soils and sediments.