Getting Answers: state suing manufacturers of PFAS chemicals

Getting Answers: state suing manufacturers of PFAS chemicals
Updated: Jul. 7, 2022 at 6:15 PM EDT
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WESTFIELD, MA (WGGB/WSHM) - Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey has sued 13 manufacturers of toxic PFAS chemicals used in firefighting foam. They said the foam has led to the contamination of drinking water sources in communities across the state, including Westfield.

Kristen Mello welcomes health officials onto her Westfield property...

“To look at the places where we watered the lawn, we watered the gardens, we were composting things, it will really help to give us more inside as to what other ways we can reduce our exposure,” Mello noted.

Exposure to PFAS toxic chemicals were first discovered in Westfield’s water back in 2013. Over the next several years, the Westfield Water Department took actions to clean the contaminated water and installed temporary and permanent water treatment facilities. By 2016, the water met all health advisories. Still, Mello has hers delivered.

“It doesn’t remove everything that I believe will harm me and, therefore, I purchase water,” Mello added.

The contamination is largely blamed on the use of firefighting foam – AFFF - for training at Barnes Air National Guard Base dating back to the 1980s. That foam is the main target of a lawsuit by Healey, who said:

“For decades, these manufacturers knew about the serious risks highly toxic pfas chemicals pose to public health, the environment, and our drinking water—yet they did nothing about it.”

One of the 13 chemical giants she’s taking aim at, 3M, said they acted responsibly when it came to the manufacture and sale of AFFF and “AFFF was a critical tool developed to serve an important need for military service members facing potentially life-threatening challenges.”

In 2019, testing found some Westfield residents had PFAS levels in their blood up to four times higher than national levels. Mello’s levels were still elevated years after the water was mitigated. It’s one of the reason PFAS is known as “forever chemicals.”

“So we use zebra fish as a model to try to predict human health effects,” said Alicia Timme-Laragy, associate professor of environmental health science at UMass Amherst.

Inside the Morrill Science Center at UMass Amherst live thousands of fish. Timme-Laragy and her team of students use fish embryos to conduct PFAS research.

“One of the most striking findings that we have is that the pancreas is incredibly sensitive to these compounds,” Timme-Laragay explained.

Their research found that when embryos were exposed to a sample of AFFF, which polluted the ground for 40 years before being phased out, the pancreas didn’t grow properly.

“…Or in some cases, there’s kind of a donut shaped, there’s a hole in the middle, but we don’t understand why it’s there,” Timme-Laragay added.

This could make the fish diabetic or unable to digest food. With the embryonic development of zebra fish very similar to humans, the study shows how drinking contaminated water during pregnancy can impact the unborn baby. Studies have linked PFAS exposure to:

  • Liver damage
  • Thyroid disease
  • Decreased fertility
  • High cholesterol
  • Obesity
  • Hormone suppression
  • Cancer

“They suppress the immune response to vaccines, so that makes the vaccines less effective,” Timme-Laragay noted.

This finding was especially concerning over the pandemic. Mello is vaccinated against COVID-19, but has to be extra careful. She’s had health issues dating back years including lung surgery and a series of pneumonia vaccines her body didn’t respond to.

“It’s been a medical mystery for years in years and it wasn’t until I started to learn what was happening with other people and other communities that thing started to make sense,” Mello added.

She said more research is needed. That’s why health officials were at her home to take soil and dust samples to test for PFAS.

“We need long-term health monitoring, we need medical monitoring,” Mello said.

She said the chemical companies who made the polluting foam should be held accountable, but she’s more concerned about continued healthcare and ongoing mitigation.

“We need a connection to an unpolluted water supply, not just a Band Aid fix, which we’ve got right now,” Mello noted.

The Westfield Water Department won an award in 2019 for their PFAS response and said they’re “...committed to supplying safe drinking water that meets or exceeds all state and federal standards.”

Mello hopes her push for continued testing will give those affected by PFAS tiny pieces of a puzzle that will take decades to put together.

“If we don’t record what happens to us, then all of this is in vain and everyone who’s gotten sick their sickness will be overlooked and forgotten,” Mello said.

The lawsuit also states that soil at Westover Air Reserve Base in Chicopee has PFAS contamination levels that are far above the state’s maximum level, but a site inspection by the Air Force “did not identify evidence of any impacts to drinking water sources, either on or off base, from PFAS.”