The toxic price of convenience

May 27, 2018

As many as 110 million Americans may be drinking water contaminated by a toxic class of chemicals that according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) are used in “stain- and water-repellent fabrics, nonstick products (e.g., Teflon), polishes, waxes, paints, cleaning products, and fire-fighting foams (a major source of groundwater contamination at airports and military bases where firefighting training occurs).”

The chemicals, referred to as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances or PFAS, were detected by EPA-mandated testing of U.S. water supplies between 2013 and 2015. The full results of that testing have not been made public. An analysis done by the Environmental Working Group using available data uncovered the widespread contamination. The group’s analysis was released last week.

Firefighting foams are a major source of the contamination, primarily from their release during routine training drills at both civilian and military airports. But the desire of consumers for nonstick pans and stain- and water-repellent clothing and carpets brings direct contact with the toxic chemicals.

The desire to make our lives maintenance-free often creates unintended environmental and health consequences. Every decision to transfer a maintenance task to a chemical substance only complicates the goal of creating a healthy environment. One solution is simply to have fewer things that require maintenance, thus reducing the time we spend on maintenance. Another is to accept that we have a duty to maintain the objects which serve us in a way that does not poison others or ourselves.

The response to problem substances is typically to find another chemical to do the same job. We did that after phasing out chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), liquids previously used in refrigerators and air conditioners to transfer heat away from refrigerator and building interiors. CFCs were leaking into the atmosphere and destroying the ozone layer which protects living organisms from the Sun’s harmful ultraviolet radiation. Hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) are now being used in their place. But it turns out that some HFCs are extremely potent greenhouse gases.

Supposed solutions that come from the same set of tools as those that created the problem often pose new unintended troubles that can be as bad or worse than the original problem.

Is it really such a burden to get stains out of clothes when needed or to iron out the wrinkles when compared to the burden of the increasingly toxic legacy of PFAS we are leaving to future generations? Is sparing ourselves from having to use a little elbow grease to get our pots and pans clean or having to coat them with a little oil before use to make them easier to wash more important than sparing ourselves a toxic future? Not too long ago these tasks were just what people did. They were not considered an extraordinary burden.

The makers of easy-care and low-maintenance products are always going to ignore the possible toxic consequences in favor of increasing sales and profit. Can we who buy these products afford to be so heedless?

Image: Dirty father Thames : Father Thames shown as a filthy looking vagrant, and the river as a repository of filth and industrial waste. Punch (1848). Via Wikimedia Commons. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Dirty_father_Thames.jpg

Kurt Cobb

Kurt Cobb is a freelance writer and communications consultant who writes frequently about energy and environment. His work has appeared in The Christian Science Monitor, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique, Oilprice.com, OilVoice, TalkMarkets, Investing.com, Business Insider and many other places. He is the author of an oil-themed novel entitled Prelude and has a widely followed blog called... Read more.

Tags: Pollution, Waste