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The toxic price of convenience

The toxic price of convenience

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.

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