The City of Baltimore announced Friday that it has joined dozens of other municipalities in suing manufacturers for their use of “eternal chemicals.”
The chemicals, called perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, have been used since the 1940s to make a wide range of products, from carpeting to fire-fighting foam, because they are resistant to heat, water, grease and oil.
But PFAS don’t break down easily in the environment, which means the chemicals have built up over time. Additionally, PFAS can accumulate in the body of humans and animals, and some types can cause serious health problems, including reproductive disorders, developmental problems in children, and certain types of cancer. As a result, industries have gradually phased out chemicals, although some continue to be used.
Baltimore has filed suit against more than 20 manufacturers that used PFAS, including 3M, DuPont and Chemours, according to a Friday press release from Democratic Mayor Brandon Scott. The lawsuit, which mimics others filed across the country — from Prince George’s County to Philadelphia and San Diego — seeks to hold the manufacturers “responsible for knowingly permitting waterways and water supply systems in the city from coming into contact with these substances,” according to Scott’s statement. .
Similarly, in 2018, the city joined several others in the United States in filing a lawsuit against fossil fuel companies, alleging they had misled the public about the impacts of climate change. Since then, the parties have argued over whether the claims should be heard in federal or state court.
In 2021, the city’s drinking water plants detected two types of forever chemicals, PFOA and PFOS. Drinking water from the Ashburton plant had a combined level of 4.93 parts per trillion, just above the smallest amount that can be accurately measured – 4 parts per trillion, according to the U.S. Protection Agency of the environment.
Earlier this year, the EPA said PFAS can pose health risks even at minute levels — 0.004 parts per trillion for PFOA and 0.02 parts per trillion for PFOS.
The American Chemistry Council sued the EPA in the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, saying the advisory is not based on science and that such low levels of PFAS cannot even undetected, according to an article in E&E News, a unit-oriented environment from Politico.
In response to a separate PFAS complaint filed by the State of North Carolina against it, 3M said it “acted responsibly with respect to products containing PFAS – including AFFF (Aqueous Film Forming Foam ) – and will vigorously defend its record of environmental stewardship,” according to a Bloomberg Law report.
The Maryland Department of Environment began testing the state’s drinking water for PFAS in 2020 and found quantifiable levels of the pollutant in 75% of samples from water treatment plants. Some 21% of the samples had levels of 10 parts per trillion or more. Several drinking water wells in Carroll County performed best and were taken offline.
A recent nationwide survey by the nonprofit Waterkeeper Alliance detected 25 different “always chemical” compounds in Maryland’s waterways, the most of any other state surveyed. The samples were collected by the nonprofit organization’s network of river guardians across the country this spring and summer.
The worst results in Maryland have been in Piscataway Creek in Prince George’s County, which begins at Joint Base Andrews and flows south through Rosaryville and enters the Potomac River at Fort Washington. The compound PFOS was detected in the stream at a level of 1364.7 parts per trillion, and several other compounds were detected at high levels.
This creek, which includes areas popular for recreational fishing, has previously brought PFAS concerns to the attention of the state Department of Environment. Joint Base Andrews is a known source of PFAS contamination, according to the state agency. Military bases are frequent sources of contamination, often due to their use of fire-fighting foam during training exercises.
In 2020, MDE began sampling fish around the state for PFAS and found “very high levels” in sunfish collected west of Maryland 210 in the non-tidal portion of Piscataway Creek. Other fish in this area did not show levels of concern, but when the department returned in 2021, red sunfish, yellow bullhead and largemouth bass all had elevated levels of PFAS.
The ministry has issued a fish consumption advisory for the creek – the first time it has issued such an advisory based on PFAS levels.
The ministry said its tests of fish on the east coast had yielded no concerning results.
New tests by the Waterkeeper Alliance, however, showed levels of PFAS compounds in coastal waterways, although significantly lower than the Piscataway. Levels ranged from 1 to 6 parts per trillion in most cases and reached up to 14.5 parts per trillion.
In Jones Falls, Baltimore, the survey of nearby residents found levels as high as 10.7 parts per trillion of a PFAS compound.
Matt Pluta, the Choptank Riverkeeper, said the results indicate the state should conduct additional testing for PFAS in waterways. If the chemicals build up in water bodies, they could soon show up at worrying levels in fish, he said.
“Are we starting to see the start of what could be a really serious problem down the road? said Pluta.