A new kind of water contamination has shown up all over the U.S., including New England.
This time it’s not lead, like in the Flint, Michigan water system -- but instead, it's a chemical used to manufacture Teflon pans, firefighting foam, and even microwave popcorn bags. It's forced some communities to hand out bottled water and shut down their water systems.
Although companies have stopped using this chemical because of health worries, a new replacement compound may be toxic, too.
The old chemicals are called C8s, because they contain eight carbons. The most common C8 is PFOA.
Studies funded by a 2005 lawsuit settlement with chemical maker DuPont have shown these chemicals may cause health problems, including high cholesterol, kidney cancer, and thyroid disease.
Since last year, American companies aren’t using them anymore -- including Saint-Gobain, a $50 billion plastics company with a plant two and a half miles from Tracy Carl’s house.
Carl and her four kids currently get all of their water from five-gallon jugs. “We do sometimes drink out of the filtered water from the fridge, which I still don’t trust completely,” she said.
But while researchers still know very little about the toxic C8 compounds, they know even less about the chemicals already being used to replace them.
Inside Saint-Gobain’s Merrimack plastics plant, enormous looms weave fabric from giant spools of glass thread. The fabrics have been used for hazmat suits, military tents and even the roof of AT&T Stadium, home of the Dallas Cowboys. They are incredibly slippery, and impervious even to biological warfare.
Deeper into the plant, I saw 25-square-foot tubs of something that looked like paint.
It’s called PTFE. This is the coating that gives the fabric that frictionless “repels-everything” quality. It’s the same stuff used on non-stick cookware.
It’s this substance that up until 2015 contained a C8 toxin.
That’s when U.S. companies voluntarily stopped using the chemical, including Saint-Gobain.
So what, exactly, is in this stuff?
CEO of Saint-Gobain’s Plastics Division Tom Kinisky wouldn’t say.
“That’s confidential between the suppliers,” he said.
Kinisky’s response is less surprising than it may sound. More than 20 percent of all chemicals known to the EPA have confidential names and formulas. Despite that confidentiality agreement, Saint-Gobain has told New Hampshire’s environmental regulator what kind of chemical the replacement is.
Mike Fitzgerald specializes in air quality for the state. He said the C8 chemicals, which are fluorocarbons with eight carbons, have been replaced with C6s: fluorocarbons with six carbons.
They’re safe, he said, “to the extent that we know. We’re certainly relying on the EPA to make sure that they haven’t replaced one chemical with a health and safety threat with another one that is the same or worse.”
As for Tom Kinisky with Saint-Gobain, he said “they’ve all been approved by the EPA.”
But “approved” isn’t the right word. While many of the replacements have been inventoried by EPA, chemicals don’t have to pass any particular safety measures to make it onto that list.
You can blame Congress for that –- they wrote law that governs EPA’s chemical rules. It hasn’t been updated in 40 years.
“They were rigorously studied,” Kinisky said. “They are regulated materials, unlike what PFOA was.”
This is also not quite right. Rather, the EPA has allowed businesses to use C6s while companies to do their own testing on things like how the chemicals degrade over time, and whether they are toxic.
Saint-Gobain and other companies seem confident in the replacement chemicals.In the meantime, the EPA told us by email it is still reviewing the C6s, and considers them to be “capable of producing reproductive, developmental, and systemic effects in laboratory tests.”
Philippe Grandjean is at the forefront of research on both C8s and their replacements at Harvard University. He said we know little about C8 chemicals, and even less about C6s. He said it’s clear C6s can be toxic.
“What we really don’t know,” he said, “is what kind of damage they do and at what levels.”
In the meantime, Grandjean added, “the best advice I have is let’s treat them like they have toxic properties like C8.”
Back in Merrimack, Tracy Carl said industry oversight isn’t work. Companies “always ask for forgiveness after the fact, rather than do the research first.”
She said she’s worried the whole C8 water crisis will just become a C6 water crisis next year.