How 'forever chemicals' endanger New Mexico's public health and why we must act now
A group of dangerous “forever chemicals” that pose a serious threat to the health of individuals, families, and children throughout New Mexico and nationwide are the subject of increasing scrutiny by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), local governments, and water agencies. New Mexico residents have cause to be very alarmed — not only by the chemicals’ serious health hazards impacting our communities, but also by the enormous expense of removing these “forever chemicals” from the water. Unless action is taken quickly, the state’s taxpayers will bear this cost.
These chemicals, which include perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, are known as PFAS and can persist in the environment and drinking water for centuries. Aware of the dangers these chemicals pose, the EPA recently issued new proposed rules limiting the drinking water levels for six types of PFAS to 4 parts per trillion or less — and noted that no amount of PFAS is safe.
The problem: Impacts on human health and the environment
Used in numerous commercial, industrial, and military applications, PFAS are found in fast food containers, nonstick cookware, stain-repellant fabrics and upholstery, furniture, carpets, pesticides, compost, artificial turf, firefighting foam, hundreds of consumer products — and drinking water.
Prolonged exposure to PFAS can cause cancer, liver damage, and decreased fertility, and increases the risk of asthma and thyroid disease, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC). PFAS also are linked with health issues including fetal development problems, immune system deficiencies, and kidney and testicular cancers.
These dangerous chemicals have contaminated drinking water and water supplies throughout New Mexico and the country. A 2015 nationwide study conducted jointly with the CDC found 97% of Americans have PFAS in their blood. In areas with heavy manufacturing, airports and/or U.S. Air Force bases, the numbers were exponentially higher.
This is particularly worrisome for residents of New Mexico, which houses numerous U.S. Air Force bases. Many of us live and/or work on or near a base and have been unknowingly exposed to high levels of PFAS for years or decades. Now that PFAS’ dangers are understood, some military bases are offering regular reports to soldiers, staff, and the public on levels of PFAS in their communities; for example, Cannon Air Force Base (located 7 miles southwest of Clovis) has offered several PFAS public updates, with the next scheduled for May 2023.
The health impacts are made worse by the fact that PFAS persist in the body. According to the CDC, PFAS’ typical half-life in the human body lasts from two to nine years — the time required for half the quantity to be metabolized or eliminated from the body. Because they are so pervasive in our water and environment, PFAS can accumulate faster than the human body can break them down, according to the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences.
Workers at increased risk for PFAS exposure at work include firefighters, who are regularly exposed through their personal protective equipment and firefighting foam. Firefighters have a 9% higher chance of being diagnosed with cancer and a 14% higher risk of dying from cancer than the general U.S. population. Other vulnerable groups include workers in aviation, manufacturing, industrial and agricultural operations, and military service members.
Local communities face high costs
Underscoring the need for the EPA’s proposed new rules, the White House released two new reports on March 14, 2023, outlining the action plan to address PFAS contamination and steps taken to date. Local governments and New Mexico communities are increasingly concerned about what lies ahead.
While the good news is that the technology exists to remove PFAS from the water supply, it is not in place, and it is extremely expensive to implement. These treatment methods require public utilities to spend millions of dollars on advanced system upgrades. Local officials and water agencies are grappling with how to pay for the high cost of cleanup, which also involves disposing of the extracted PFAS in special landfills designed to contain the dangerous chemicals.
What can be done: Holding PFAS manufacturers responsible
Throughout the nation, local leaders are calling for PFAS manufacturers, including 3M and Dupont, to be held accountable for the damage their products have caused and for the cost of removing PFAS from the water supply.
Fortunately, the justice system provides a way for communities to sue the PFAS manufacturers responsible for polluting the water and make them — rather than the taxpayers — pay for the cost of cleanup. Numerous public agencies are suing over 40 PFAS manufacturers in multidefendant litigation that consolidates over 2,000 cases seeking damages for cleanup costs and other harm caused by firefighting foam. Other public entities are filing suit, including the State of California, which is suing PFAS manufacturers for endangering public health, causing irreparable harm to the state’s natural resources, and engaging in a widespread campaign to deceive the public, alleging that they knew or should have known that PFAS are toxic and harmful to human health and the environment, yet continued to produce them for mass use and concealed their harms from the public.
Because settlements are anticipated to be significant and involve extremely large amounts of money, a narrow window of opportunity exists to join the fight.
New Mexico’s Urgent Need: Take Action Today
It is critically important that New Mexico communities and leaders take action on this issue immediately. Taxpayers and local agencies should not be made to bear the costs of removing dangerous and life-threatening PFAS from the water supply. Residents of New Mexico have been unknowingly exposed to these dangers and suffered the ill effects, while the manufacturers knew the risks and profited from the use of PFAS for decades. They must be held accountable in the courts and made to pay for the expense of cleaning up the water supply that their products contaminated.
Urge your local and state elected officials and leaders to take legal action today against PFAS manufacturers. New Mexico cannot afford to delay joining this fight. We need to remove PFAS from our water, and the polluters who deceived the public and profited at our expense should be made to pay. The health of our communities, our children, and our grandchildren is at stake.
Brian Colón is managing partner of the New Mexico offices of the law firm Singleton Schreiber, LLP, and a former New Mexico State Auditor; he leads the firm’s New Mexico efforts in the areas of wrongful death, personal injury, medical malpractice, products liability, and environmental law.
Britt Strottman is a partner in Singleton Schreiber and leads the firm’s Public Entity Environmental Practice Group specializing in litigation against corporations for wrongdoing.