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The latest ‘forever chemical’ PFAS lawsuit is coming from Tennessee

Sewage sludge from wastewater treatment plants used on agricultural lands is a known source of PFAS contamination.
Courtesy of John Cameron
Sewage sludge from wastewater treatment plants used on agricultural lands is a known source of PFAS contamination.

Manufacturers buried evidence of harm. Health studies flagged cancer risks. Citizens reported contamination.

Then, states started suing.

On Thursday, Tennessee joined about 20 other states in suing manufacturers of PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances.

PFAS is an umbrella term for a group of about 12,000 substances called “forever chemicals” that repel oil and water and do not break down in the environment. PFAS are used in furniture, cookware, waterproof clothing, food packaging, cosmetics, firefighting foam and toilet paper.

PFAS has been linked to multiple cancers, reproductive harm and other serious health issues.
Courtesy Australia Department of Defence
PFAS has been linked to multiple cancers, reproductive harm and other serious health issues.

These chemicals have been detected in our blood, air, soil, a fertilizer made from Nashville sewage and water — affecting the drinking water supply of an estimated 200 million Americans. PFAS exposure is linked to kidney cancer, high cholesterol, decreased fertility, liver damage, thyroid disease and birth defects.

In the US, DuPont and 3M have historically been the largest manufacturers of PFAS, and both companies now face about 4,000 lawsuits from states and cities seeking compensation for cleanup. Last week, 3M agreed to pay $10.3 billion to about 300 communities in the largest PFAS-related settlement to date.

Tennessee Attorney General Jonathan Skrmetti is suing 20 manufacturers, including DuPont, 3M and Chemours. The lawsuit alleges that companies knew that their products, specifically firefighting foams, would harm Tennesseans and Tennessee’s natural resources.

“Manufacturers continued to produce and profit from these chemicals long after they were aware of the dangers,” Skrmetti said in a press release. “We will fight to obtain serious compensation from every one of these defendants to ensure we can clean up our environment and stop the harms associated with PFAS.”

The first PFAS was invented in the 1930s, and DuPont introduced it to the world with teflon in the following decade. In 1998, the Environmental Protection Agency was alerted to the health hazards of PFAS; the agency first proposed a standard to limit PFAS in drinking water this year.

Today, about 30,000 companies are still using PFAS and causing pollution.

More lawsuits and settlements are expected. The attorney general’s office said that the state is requesting monetary relief to stop manufacturers from continuing to pollute and hold them financially liable for remediation. It is unclear how potential settlement funds would be used in the state.

“Any monies derived from this lawsuit should fund the expansion of PFAS contamination testing in Tennessee, and effective remediation programs,” Scott Banbury, a director at the Sierra Club in Tennessee, said in a statement. “What would be more meaningful is state regulations that required testing for PFAS at our landfills, wastewater treatment plants and in sewage sludge that is applied to agricultural land across the state.”

Caroline Eggers covers environmental issues with a focus on equity for WPLN News through Report for America, a national service program that supports journalists in local newsrooms across the country. Before joining the station, she spent several years covering water quality issues, biodiversity, climate change and Mammoth Cave National Park for newsrooms in the South. Her reporting on homelessness and a runoff-related “fish kill” for the Bowling Green Daily News earned her 2020 Kentucky Press Association awards in the general news and extended coverage categories, respectively. Beyond deadlines, she is frequently dancing, playing piano and photographing wildlife and her poodle, Princess. She graduated from Emory University with majors in journalism and creative writing.
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