March 7, 2022
Scientists first discovered the tasteless, odorless chemicals along a stretch of southern New Jersey in 2020. Combinations of carbon and fluorine molecules littered the soil and water, where they were absorbed by fish and, quite possibly, the people who live there.
The compounds are part of a family of thousands of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, used for decades in consumer products like Teflon cookware, rain gear, and food packaging. The more scientists research PFAS, the more concern emerges about their potential health effects.
Studies of the South Jersey PFAS showed that when rats were dosed with even extremely small amounts, they suffered liver and neurological damage, along with drops in red blood cell counts. The results led the state to issue in January an emergency safety limit for the chemicals in water and soil. New Jersey is now on track to become the first state in the country to regulate them.
On the surface, the chain of events appears to show a system functioning to protect people from harmful substances. Scientists discovered the chemicals, studied their toxicity, and moved to protect the public in a matter of years.
But in reality, experts say, the system failed.
Records show a local plastics plant had been polluting the air and water with the chemicals for a quarter century. Documents indicate the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency knew in advance of the chemicals’ danger but took no action, even after being criticized for PFAS crises in other states. 1/7