Whether organic or inorganic, chemistry is an interesting branch of science dealing with the composition of matter. Over the centuries, man has discovered a horde of chemicals naturally found in the environment.
Likewise, innovative minds have developed newer forms of chemicals that have myriads of practical applications. In fact, imagining modern life apart from such chemicals would be rather challenging.
However, most synthetic chemicals come with a heavy price. At least in higher doses, they are capable of wreaking havoc on human health and the environment. At the current state, mankind has successfully breached the Earth’s threshold, having produced over 350,000 artificial chemicals.
In this article, we will discuss three manmade chemicals that are plaguing the contemporary world. These may not necessarily be a single chemical but a group of complex compounds.
Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS)
PFAS is a massive group of over 12,000 chemicals. Their chemical composition was discovered in the 1930s. However, they only became a major ingredient in manufacturing industrial/consumer products by the 1940s.
The key reasons why PFAS were produced were their properties of water, oil, and grease resistance. As a result, they were ideal for manufacturing non-stick cookware, stain-resistant fabric, etc. PFAS’ properties also made them an ingredient of choice for Aqueous Film Forming Foam or AFFF.
It is a type of firefighting foam used to extinguish Class B fires (that break out due to liquid fuels). The foam’s low viscosity enabled it to put out fast-spreading fires easily. However, firefighters were aware of the health dangers they were being exposed to daily.
Many developed life-threatening conditions like cancers of the kidneys and testicles and decided to sue PFAS manufacturers. In 2017, the first cases were filed across Federal courts. By 2018, the situation reached a point where the AFFF lawsuit became a class-action multi-district litigation.
As per TorHoerman Law, this litigation was filed under two categories – personal injury cases of firefighters and water contamination cases of municipalities. As of today, most water contamination cases have been settled for $10.3 billion, with some involving a Telomer-based AFFF still awaiting trials.
Attorneys are now focusing on personal injury cases, which may take another year or two before reaching individual settlements. The legal battle may end soon, but the repercussions of PFAS are here to stay. Despite a worldwide ban by 2025, scientists have found traces of these chemicals in US tap water and rainwater.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) still has 180 PFAS-contaminated superfund sites to clean. It may take decades before a permanent remediation for this problem is discovered.
Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs)
PCBs are also a group of highly toxic aromatic chemical compounds produced as a result of industrial processes. It is important to mention early on that production of these chemicals was banned in 1979. However, they continue to plague the world today.
Manufactured by Monsanto (now Bayer), PCBs may be found in paints, glues, plastics, capacitors, and transformers produced between 1929 and 1979. According to the EPA, PCBs can be released into the environment in the following ways –
- Hazardous waste sites that are poorly maintained
- Improper or illegal dumping of PCB wastes
- Burning of such wastes in industrial or municipal incinerators
- Leakages from electrical transformers
- Disposal of PCB products into municipal landfills
Just like PFAS which are known as ‘forever chemicals,’ PCBs do not easily break down in the environment. They can remain for decades in the soil, water, or air and are even carried long distances via sea water and snow. Because of this, PCBs are still a carcinogenic threat to humans.
Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs)
VOCs are any chemical compound with a carbon bond, excluding carbon mono and dioxide, metallic carbides, and carbonic acid. Their composition is such that they can easily evaporate under normal atmospheric temperature and pressure.
These are also a group of synthetic chemicals produced during the manufacturing process for refrigerants, paints, and pharmaceuticals. VOCs may even be found naturally in the environment, but the manmade variants are much more volatile and largely toxic.
These compounds are two to five times more easily found indoors and lead to severe pollution. They may even contaminate water despite low water solubility. A case in point is that of Camp Lejeune water contamination.
North Carolina’s Camp Lejeune had three water tanks (Holcomb Boulevard, Hadnot Point, and Tarawa Terrace) polluted with Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs). The most predominant chemical found in the waters was perchloroethylene/tetrachloroethylene.
Released into the groundwater from an offsite dry-cleaning facility, the chemicals were consumed by the Camp’s residents for three decades. As a result, veterans and their families developed life-threatening health conditions, including a range of cancers, infertility issues, birth defects, and so on.
Victims were granted the right to sue the government via the Camp Lejeune Justice Act (CLJA) in 2022, and over 117,000 administrative claims have already been filed. Though there are VOC emission standards, these chemicals have not been banned to date.
In almost every case where a toxic manmade chemical is involved, lawsuits are filed against manufacturers. Companies that produce such chemicals are speedily losing out on millions (sometimes even billions) in settlements.
Given the havoc they have already caused, one can only hope that artificial chemical production ceases altogether.